These little fish are a big deal to birds

The anchovy that flavors your Caesar salad or tops your pizza also happen to be at the top of the list in importance for seabirds in California and Oregon. There are troubling signs that stocks of this small fish are in jeopardy, impacting some of our favorite seabirds. Audubon’s west coast forage campaign is working to improve understanding and protection for this critical forage fish in the face of climate change and increased fisheries pressure.

Forage fish such as herring, squid, anchovy and sardines are the heartbeat of the ocean, feeding larger wild fish, marine mammals and seabirds. Our local forage fish also support stocks of the delicious local fish we love to eat- salmon, tuna and rockfish. According to new analyses from the Farallon Institute and from seabird ecologist David Ainley and colleagues, anchovy is the single most important prey species for California Current seabirds. The small fish are easily procured by parent seabirds and are packed with oil and protein. They are also just the right size for hungry chicks. Overall, anchovy is the perfect nutrition package for growing seabirds.

Locally breeding seabirds relying on anchovy for one or more seasons of the year include California Brown Pelican, Common Murre, Rhinocerous Auklet, Craveri’s Murrelet, Scripps’s Murrelet and California Least Tern. The Tufted Puffin, declining in this southern portion of its range , also feeds on anchovy when it is available. Visiting (non breeding) seabirds that rely on anchovy include Short-tailed, Sooty, Buller’s, Flesh-footed, Pink-footed, and Black-vented Shearwaters,

Anchovy is also the first or second most important forage fish for other marine predators such as humpback whales, Chinook salmon, dolphins, and pinnipeds. These predators as well as seabirds have been aggregating in a few areas in California such as Monterey Bay and Morro Bay to feed on persistent schools of anchovy, creating a stunning wildlife spectacle also photographed above in Morro Bay. Yet, these highly concentrated schools of anchovy are considered a sign of a highly stressed, rather than healthy stock. Indeed, government surveys show a long-term declining trend in anchovy abundance, with very low levels of larvae and eggs observed in recent years.

This, in turn, is affecting seabirds. According to an important study by the Farallon Institute published this year in the journal Deep Sea Research, “anchovy decline probably accounts for much of the long term decline (2.2% per year from 1987-2011) in the seabirds in the region.” No one knows exactly why anchovy have declined, but it is a likely to be a combination of climate change, natural cycles, fisheries, and increased predation pressure by sea lions, seals and whales that have recovered from low numbers following the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Despite the essential importance of anchovy to seabirds, other predators and the fish we like to eat, management attention is lacking. Managers don’t know anything about the size of the stock—the last stock assessments were 20 or more years ago. Modern fisheries management requires a “cutoff” stock size under which fishing may not occur—that is not in place for anchovy, therefore, current harvest quotas may be too high. Finally, there are no considerations for protecting anchovy in key areas such as within 50 km of breeding islands for the troubled Pacific Brown Pelican. Audubon California supports local fisheries and we could support limited fishing on anchovy within a precautionary, legally compliant framework—which does not currently exist.

For these reasons Audubon California is leading an effort in collaboration with our West Coast Forage Coalition partners to ensure our federal fisheries managers put in place an updated, scientifically sound framework for this essential forage species.

Fisheries managers listen to the views of concerned members of the public, and in 2015 we will be looking to our Activist Network – you – to show your support for better understanding and precautionary management of anchovy. We’ll keep you posted!


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