Monterey Bay, a global marine Important Bird Area, has for months been teeming with seabirds, whales, dolphins, sea lions and other wildlife. Predators from all over the Pacific have come here to feed on a reported “wall of anchovies.” This past weekend Audubon California's Andrea Jones and I were fortunate to witness this wildlife spectacle -- a testament to the importance of conserving the small fish that are the heartbeat of the sea. (Photo copyright Aguasonic Acoustics)
We boarded a vessel out of Monterey Landing operated by Sanctuary Cruises, a well-run operation which donates a portion of its profits to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Our biodiesel-fueled vessel headed out over the Monterey Canyon and within a few minutes we saw humpback whales as far as the eye could see, as well as ring-billed, western and Heermann’s gulls, common murres, rhinocerous auklets, brown pelicans, sooty and pink-footed shearwaters, a tufted puffin and a marbled murrelet. Dozens of humpback whales and at least a thousand sea lions were cooperatively feeding by periodically diving and resurfacing to feed in groups. Gulls, shearwaters, pelicans and other seabirds fed from above as the anchovy were pushed to the surface. We encountered a groupl of at least 800 Risso's and white-sided dolphins. Whales swam below our boat, surfacing on the other side and showering us with their moist breath.
According to anecdotal reports, for this year at least, on the west coast this wildlife cornucopia may be happening only in Monterey Bay. Nobody knows why anchovy are abundant here and scarce in other areas. This small, energy-rich fish can fairly be described as the single most important prey species for seabirds in Baja, California and Oregon due to its small size and nearshore distribution. Yet this essential prey item is facing new threats. While information on anchovy stock status is scarce, the little information that does exist suggest stocks have declined on the west coast over the past 20 years. Fishing pressure is currently low, but is likely to increase due to the collapse of sardine over the past decade. Management attention and standards fall far short of what is needed to meet federal requirements for any actively fished species, let alone an essential prey item.
Due to the foundational importance of anchovy to seabirds, combined with inadequate management attention, Audubon California recently took the unusually strong position that commercial fisheries on anchovy should cease until stock abundance and variability is better understood, and the species is better managed in accordance with federal requirements. In collaboration with our partners we will continue to push for improved understanding and protection of this most essential food resource for our beloved seabirds and marine mammals, as well as commercially valuable predatory fish. We will in the coming year be asking for your help to let fisheries managers know that conserving anchovy is important to you.
Above: Northern Fulmars eating the abundant sea nettle jellyfish. Below: humpback whale and sea lions. Bottom: whales catch the light. Photos by Andrea Jones.