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Oceana Magazine Fall 2012: Anchovy’s Return

Reviewed by: Javier Lopez
By Peter Brannen

During the Roman Empire, sauces conjured from the humble anchovy dressed the plates of emperors. On Spanish street corners, whether served fresh, boqueron, or as salted anchoas, the anchovy has been a stable of Iberian cuisine for centuries.

Then, a decade ago, after years of irresponsible fishing, the anchovy stock collapsed in Spain’s Bay of Biscay.

The crash was the perfect storm: a fishery that naturally suffers wide swings in population numbers from year to year and a fishing fleet that was determined to exploit it according to its own numbers.

 Anchovies are a short-lived species, typically living three to four years, while most of the fish that are caught are only one year old. The health of the stock in any given year, therefore, is heavily dependent on the spawning success of the previous year, which in turn is affected by a number of environmental and oceanographic factors. This is a species that needs to be especially well-monitored and managed to ensure that a bad spawning season is not compounded by unsustainable catch levels from the fleet of Spanish and French purse seiners and trawlers that pull giant shoals of the schooling fish out of the Atlantic by the millions.

That’s exactly what happened nearly a decade ago, says Oceana Europe marine scientist Javier Lopez.

“The total allowable catch (TAC) of the anchovy was set independently of the state of the stock, so scientific advice was ignored and only the opinion of the fishing sector was predominant,” he said. “Normally this kind of short-lived species suffers some variation so for several years maybe the TAC was right but for many others the TAC was wrong. It was really, really wrong.”

In the early 2000s, after years in decline, the anchovy stock in the Bay of Biscay plummeted. From the stock’s previous high catch of almost 90,000 tons, the catch dropped to just under 10,000 tons in 2003. Thanks to pressure from Oceana, the European Union closed the fishery in the Bay of Biscay for four years starting in 2005—and the anchovies slowly returned.

When the population exploded in 2009 the fishery was finally reopened. But even after four years of closure, catch levels were once again set above the scientific recommendations for the species thanks to pressure from the fishing industry.

“It made no sense,” said Lopez.

In the years since, however, the EU has taken the lessons of the last decade to heart. After a 2011 season that saw the highest abundance in anchovy stock since studies of the population began in 1987, the governing body of the EU lauded the new scientific approach.

“This is a good example that sustainable fisheries management, based on a long-term approach and with involvement of the industry pays off,” the European Commission said.

Over the past two years the total allowable catch limit of anchovies in the Bay of Biscay has been in line with scientific recommendations for the first time in nearly two decades of management.

“The EU is acting responsibly,” said Lopez. “They’ve realized that they have to do it this way if they don’t want the fisheries to be depleted. We are really blessed with this new situation.”

But Oceana isn’t finished. As the EU puts together a management plan for the fish going forward, Oceana is pushing to have sensible measures put in place to prevent another disaster. One obvious solution would be to have catch limits tied to the total percentage of anchovy biomass in a given year, rather than set at a predetermined and arbitrary figure.

“That makes sense,” said Lopez. “If you have more biomass you can catch more fish. It’s logical.”

Oceana is also fighting against a proposal to set a minimum yearly catch limit of 7,000 tons, regardless of the health of the stock, as well as a proposal to limit the amount that the catch could be reduced from year to year, again, regardless of scientific recommendations.

 As food lovers know, anchovies are an umami powerhouse, conveyor of that elusive fifth taste, giving Worcestershire sauce and Caesar salad dressing their tang and immeasurably enriching any puttanesca. For the Spanish the anchovy is a national treasure. Whether it remains to be so well into the future depends largely on the cooperation of governments, fishermen, scientists and groups like Oceana.

“Oceana has been practically the one and only NGO pushing for the recovery of the anchovy,” said Lopez.