Changing Planet

Fate of Small Species Has Huge Implications for Our Ocean

Pacific council should use science to set catch limits on anchovy

When most of us think of the ocean, we think big: It covers 71 percent of our planet, dictates our weather, and is home to the tallest mountain and deepest canyon on the planet, as well as the largest animal, the blue whale.

And yet the ocean relies on its smallest inhabitants, from the phytoplankton and zooplankton that underpin the food web to forage fish, species like sardines, herring, and anchovy that are often referred to as baitfish.

In recent years, numbers of some forage fish species have declined dramatically, causing a food shortage for a vast array of marine animals. The Pacific marine ecosystem, including right here in the San Francisco Bay, is already suffering the consequences, with well-publicized accounts of starving sea lion pups and brown pelican breeding failures among the most visible evidence.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees 300,000 square miles of ocean waters off the California, Oregon, and Washington coasts has passed catch limits to protect some forage fish but has unfortunately been remiss on protecting one of the most critical—anchovy. In fact, the catch limits for anchovy are based on data from 1995, when the population was robust. The council, which meets again in mid-November, must seize this opportunity to prevent further impacts to California’s vibrant marine ecosystem and coastal communities.

Scientists say that anchovies are the single most important prey species for seabirds on the U.S. West Coast and rank first or second for many other major predators, including humpback whales, chinook salmon, dolphins, and sea lions.

Anchovy closeup
Anchovy closeup

A study published last November in the journal Fisheries Research indicated that the California anchovy population has dropped from a total estimated biomass of 1 million tons a decade ago to potentially as low as 20,000 tons in recent years. That’s less than the current annual catch limit of 25,000 metric tons for the waters off California. Think about that: If the research bears out, the current catch limit exceeds the entire subpopulation of northern anchovies along the California coast.

The predicament facing anchovy is not due solely to fishing: their numbers fluctuate with changes in ocean temperatures and typically surge during predominantly cold-water cycles. The unusually warm water in the Pacific Ocean presents real uncertainty about anchovy numbers into the future.

But fishing is a factor too. Fishery managers hadn’t paid much attention to anchovies until the sardine fishery collapsed last year and fishing pressure shifted toward anchovies. Unfortunately, it’s now becoming clear that the anchovy population isn’t any stronger than the sardine population.

But there are clear signs fishery managers and regulators are heeding the call to protect forage fish. In May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) finalized a rule prohibiting commercial fishing from starting on seven other groups of prey species until fishery managers assess how that fishing would affect the broader ecosystem. That move enacted a policy adopted unanimously in 2015 by the Pacific Fishery Management Council for federal waters. And just last week, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife held a public hearing on its intent to implement these same protections in state waters.

The council now must set reasonable catch limits on existing fisheries for northern anchovy in order to reflect best available science, ensure adequate forage for dependent predators, and prevent overfishing.

A healthy ocean depends on an abundant and diverse array of small organisms, including forage fish. If fishery managers fail to recognize and act upon those facts, we may soon think of our ocean not as a vast, blue, vibrant wonder but as one big regret.

Dr. Sylvia Earle is a National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence, oceanographer, explorer, author, and founder of the Sylvia Earle Alliance / Mission Blue. Her current work includes finding more Hope Spots.

National Geographic Society Explorer in Residence Dr. Sylvia A. Earle, called Her Deepness by the New Yorker and the New York Times, Living Legend by the Library of Congress, and first Hero for the Planet by Time Magazine, is an oceanographer, explorer, author and lecturer with experience as a field research scientist, government official, and director for corporate and non-profit organizations including the Kerr McGee Corporation, Dresser Industries, Oryx Energy, the Aspen Institute, the Conservation Fund, American Rivers, Mote Marine Laboratory, Duke University Marine Laboratory, Rutgers Institute for Marine Science, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, and Ocean Futures. Formerly Chief Scientist of NOAA, Dr. Earle is the Founder of Deep Ocean Exploration and Research, Inc. (DOER), Founder of the Sylvia Earle Alliance (S.E.A.) / Mission Blue, Chair of the Advisory Council of the Harte Research Institute, inspiration for the Ocean in Google Earth, leader of the NGS Sustainable Seas Expeditions, and the subject of the 2014 Netflix film, Mission Blue. She has a B.S. degree from Florida State University, M.S. and PhD. from Duke University, 27 honorary degrees and has authored more than 200 scientific, technical and popular publications including 13 books (most recently Blue Hope in 2014), lectured in more than 90 countries, and appeared in hundreds of radio and television productions. She has led more than 100 expeditions and logged more than 7,000 hours underwater including leading the first team of women aquanauts during the Tektite Project in 1970, participating in ten saturation dives, most recently in July 2012, and setting a record for solo diving in 1,000 meters depth. Her research concerns marine ecosystems with special reference to exploration, conservation and the development and use of new technologies for access and effective operations in the deep sea and other remote environments. Her special focus is on developing a global network of areas in the Ocean, “Hope Spots,” to safeguard the living systems that provide the underpinnings of global processes, from maintaining biodiversity and yielding basic life support services to providing stability and resiliency in response to accelerating climate change. Her more than 100 national and international honors include the 2013 National Geographic Hubbard Medal, 2011 Royal Geographical Society Patron’s Medal, 2011 Medal of Honor from the Dominican Republic, 2009 TED Prize, Netherlands Order of the Golden Ark, Australia’s International Banksia Award, Italy’s Artiglio Award, the International Seakeepers Award, the International Women’s Forum, the National Women’s Hall of Fame, UNEP 2014 Champion of the Earth, 2014 Glamour Woman of the Year, Academy of Achievement, Los Angeles Times Woman of the Year, UN Global 500, and medals from the Explorers Club, the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences, Lindbergh Foundation, National Wildlife Federation, Sigma Xi, Barnard College, and the Society of Women Geographers.
  • Tobias Mildenberger

    Could you please provide the link to mentioned Fisheries Research article?

  • Jeff A. Tracey

    FYI, the article mentioned was actually published in the March issue of Fisheries Research. (Volume 175, March 2016, Pages 87–94).

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