Seas & Shores

Audubon network shows up for anchovy, a little fish with a big impact

Sporting green and white hats emblazoned with California least terns, chapter volunteers urged fisheries managers to “get active on anchovy" because birds need them.

Making the case that anchovy are vital for the survival of marine birds, San Diego Audubon restoration program manager (3rd from left) Megan Flaherty, and six volunteers in the chapter’s TernWatchers volunteer program recently presented to the Pacific Fishery Management Council. Photo: Megan Flaherty

Megan Flaherty, restoration program manager for San Diego Audubon, was flanked by several chapter volunteers as she made the case for anchovy before the Pacific Fishery Management Council in San Diego earlier this month. Her presentation, entitled “San Diego Audubon: A Legacy of Protecting California Least Terns and Other Seabirds Reliant on Northern Anchovy,” described the dedication of chapter volunteers for restoring least tern nesting habitat, and the positive outcomes this has yielded for this beloved species. Council members had numerous questions for Megan, a telltale sign they appreciate a presentation.

Veteran chapter leaders Scott Thomas and Susan Sheakley of Sea and Sage Audubon presented “Anchovies: Not Just Another Pizza Topping” which similarly resulted in Council discussion. (Check out Pew Trusts’ feature of Sea and Sage volunteer Kate Grabenstein here.)

Representing Audubon California, I focused on the need for annual monitoring and fishery quota-setting of this fluctuating forage species. Climate-driven changes in ocean temperatures and productivity are causing more pronounced stock collapses and a higher level of variability in anchovy. This is making it harder for birds to get these fish when and where they need it.

No fish in California is more important to seabirds than anchovy. This small, schooling forage fish is the richest forage fish in oil and protein, and is often found in large schools on the surface and close to shore. Anchovy are sought after by dozens of seabirds, from locally breeding California least terns and brown pelicans provisioning their chicks, to sooty and pink-footed shearwaters fueling up for the long flight south in the fall.

The comments of Sea and Sage, and San Diego Audubon, were especially relevant when considering how the fate of federally endangered Californija Least Tern is intertwined with the health of the anchovy stock in southern California. Research conducted by Point Blue Conservation Science has shown that breeding success of least terns in southern California declines when the proportion of anchovy in their diet declines.

We were pleased the Council responded to our requests with substantial action items for government scientists and work groups. The actions to be taken over the coming year will support the transition of anchovy to “active management,” where fishing quotas are set annually based on current stock condition. This will result in better protection for the stock and predators when the stock is at low levels, and better fishing opportunities for the commercial fleet when the stock is at high levels. 

I was thrilled to have the chance to substantively collaborate with Audubon chapters to advance the conservation of this important forage fish for our beautiful coastal and marine birds. We will continue to keep you posted and ask for your help through Activist Alerts where needed. 

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