Co-authored by Ben Enticknap
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) just announced a lack of Pacific sardines is a “likely contributor” to the “Unusual Mortality Event” (UME) that occurred last year where over 1,600 California sea lions were found stranded and malnourished along the Southern California coastline. The big story, however, is the one NOAA is not telling us.
Shortly after John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row was published in 1945 the sardine fishery he immortalized collapsed, taking with it the ramshackle seaside villages of canners that sprouted up in Monterey to accommodate the once booming industry. Now it seems regulators are determined to return to those grim days after the Pacific Fishery Management Council approved a 2013 catch level of 66,495 metric tons of sardines for a fishery that is once again careening towards collapse.
Add fish poop to the growing list of unlikely allies in the fight against global warming. A new study published in the journal Scientific Reports outlines the critical role small forage fish, in particular northern anchovies, play in burying carbon in the deep sea.
It turns out that small fish like anchovies, smelt and sardines are a major component of the so-called "biological pump" that takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and sequesters it in the deep, where it can no longer contribute to global warming. That pump begins with photosynthetic, carbon dioxide-absorbing, single-celled algae, like the wonderfully intricate diatoms and dinoflagellates, at the ocean surface. Anchovies then feed on the algae, digest it and release it as fecal pellets which sink to the ocean bottom.
At 22 micrograms of carbon per pellet, the contribution might seem inconsequential, but as the study's authors, Dr. Grace Saba of Rutgers University and professor Deborah Steinberg of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, explain, the cumulative effect on the carbon cycle by large schools of small forage fish could be considerable.
“Our findings show that—given the right conditions—fish fecal pellets can transport significant amounts of repackaged surface material to depth, and do so relatively quickly,” says Saba.
Those "right conditions" are found off of the western coasts of North and South America where cold, nutrient-rich water from the deep upwells along the continental shelf, and subsequently drive the production of enormous schools of small fish and invertebrates. It's these conditions that are responsible for Peru's anchovy industry or California's iconic sardine industry immortalized in Steinbeck's Cannery Row.
But besides delivering carbon to the deep, forage fish also play a critical role in the larger foodweb, feeding whales, dolphins, seals, larger fish and seabirds. For all these reasons it's critical to employ science-based fisheries management to prevent the collapse of this vital resource. Unfortunately, that has not been the trajectory of forage fisheries management in the Pacific. Learn more about forage fish and Oceana's work to conserve these small but invaluable species.
Editor's Note: This commentary originally appeared in the Monterey Herald.
No town knows better what happens in a fishery crash than Monterey. Our infamous Cannery Row, once the heart of a bustling sardine industry, is now occupied by restaurants and tourist shops. Sadly, we are on a path to yet another Pacific sardine crash.
In a report published in February, National Marine Fisheries Service scientists warn the sardine population off the West Coast is steeply declining and fishery managers are making the same mistakes all over again. Yet, a separate report, "Little Fish Big Impact," by 13 pre-eminent scientists from around the world, concludes that current management of forage fish — like sardines, anchovy, and squid — is too aggressive and that catches should be cut in half.
A third study, aptly referred to as "A Third for the Birds" finds that seabirds are drastically affected when forage fish decline below one-third of their maximum numbers, which is the current situation for Pacific sardines. Hopefully these findings will be the catalyst needed to finally change the way forage species are managed.
Yesterday afternoon, the California Assembly acknowledged the critical role that forage species play in maintaining a healthy marine food web by passing Assembly Bill 1299 (AB 1299), sponsored by Oceana and introduced by Assemblymember Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael).
Forage species, like sardines, herring, and market squid, are truly the “heartbeat” of the ocean forming the foundation of the food web – which in turn benefits everything else that eats these small fish.
AB 1299 provides a much needed change in the way California manages its fisheries by establishing a state policy that will for the first time consider how much forage should be left in the ocean. This is not just an environmental issue, but largely an economic one; forage species help support California’s recreation and tourism economy, which is worth over $12 billion annually, providing more than 250,000 jobs in the state.
This is the third in a series of four guest posts by Paul Greenberg, author of the bestselling book, Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food.
One of the more enjoyable things I've done during the Four Fish book tour is to host sustainable seafood dinners at some of America's better restaurants. I've done this at Fork in Philadelphia, Savoy in New York City, Ammo in Los Angeles and most recently at North Pond in Chicago (Blue Hill at Stone Barnes and Lumiere in Boston are upcoming).
At each dinner the chef and I reviewed the principles of eating sustainably from the ocean and then put together a four-course menu. Bruce Sherman at Chicago's North Pond, for example, did a dinner with an oyster/clam/gulf shrimp/spot prawn starter, a seared mackerel intermediate and then main courses of a farmed arctic char and a wild local lake whitefish.
Each course represented a different potential solution: clams, oysters, shrimp and prawns are low trophic level feeders and have relatively small energy demands from the planet. The clams and oysters can be farmed with pretty much no damage to the environment and oyster beds are useful bottom habitat for many wild fish. The mackerel is lower on the food chain and quicker to reproduce than say, bluefin tuna, and still has plenty of omega threes.