Seas & Shores

Audubon activism keeps anchovy in the water for seabirds

West Coast Audubon network continues its effort to protect some of North America's most threatened birds.

Sooty Shearwaters feasting on anchovy in Monterey Bay. Wait until the end! Video by Geoff Shester.

Northern anchovy (Engraulis mordax) is the number one seabird food on much of the West Coast. Anchovy is a great food for marine birds because it is rich in protein and oil, tends to occur in dense schools close to the surface, and it is often available year-round in coastal areas, bays and inlets. Unfortunately, due to an outdated management framework, anchovy on the West Coast are vulnerable to overfishing. This is especially true around seabird colonies and in places like Monterey Bay where predators from around the entire Pacific basin aggregate to feed, such as these tens of thousands of Sooty Shearwaters visiting from the Southern Hemisphere.

The Audubon network on the West Coast - Audubon California, Sea and Sage Audubon, San Diego Audubon, and the Audubon Society of Portland, in particular – are working together to improve protections for northern anchovy. The process has been slow but is proceeding in the right direction.

We’re working closely with The Pew Charitable Trusts, Earthjustice and Oceana to encourage fisheries managers to focus on developing management measures that are set annually in response to stock condition. This will ensure the stock is not fished after it has collapsed or is in very poor condition, as was the case in 2009-2016. During this time period, other forage stocks were also low or had collapsed, and dependent predators often starved or suffered poor breeding success. Visiting seabirds, in particular Sooty Shearwaters, have undergone a long-term decline due to low anchovy stocks at west coast refueling sites in the past 25 years.

Yet, fisheries managers did not change the harvest quota for northern anchovy. Fishing on a forage stock that has collapsed is not consistent with federal law, or the goals and objectives established by regional fisheries managers, as it hinders stock recovery and impacts birds and other predators. Annual quota-setting is critical when allowing commercial fisheries on a key forage species that undergoes natural, dramatic fluctuations in stock size. Science-based catch limits that account for the status of the stock as well as the needs of dependent predators will help ensure that anchovies are plentiful enough to fulfill their crucial role in the Pacific food web.

In March of this year, Audubon activists sent more than 2,500 e-mails to fisheries managers asking them to set lower, science-based fishing limits for anchovy based on current stock status. We were disappointed when these managers chose not to lower the quota for the 2017 fishing season. However, in response to this public comment, and to our activism at fisheries managers’  September meeting, they put in place steps that would better allow science-based quota setting in time for the 2018 fishing season. A key problem government and partner scientists will resolve in the coming months is how best to use the available survey equipment and related analyses used to count anchovy and understand stock status.

Meanwhile, long-term studies on breeding seabirds in California will help us better understand how seabirds are being impacted by fluctuations in the availability of anchovy. These studies also provide data on the sizes of anchovy foraging seabirds are bringing back to their chicks, which helps scientists understand the status of the stock.

The bi-annual Brown Pelican Survey coordinated by Audubon and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, now in its second year, is shedding light on the age structure of this beloved species that is so dependent on the availability of anchovy near its breeding colonies. In the coming year we will continue to fight hard to protect northern anchovy and all the beautiful seabirds that depend on this unique forage fish, and ask for your help when needed.

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