Why West Coast Sea Life Has Been Behaving So Strangely

The Pacific sardine population is crashing. Meanwhile, thriving anchovies attract a circus of charismatic megafauna. 

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It has been an exceptionally good year for whale watching in California. In past seasons, sightseers off Monterey typically spotted two or three humpbacks on a single afternoon at sea. This past SeptemberOctoberNovember, and December, whale watchers were treated to more than 50 at a time. Dozens of killer whales frolicked in the same area throughout the fall. In December, a total of 364 gray whales were counted migrating south past Palos Verdes—double the 182 spotted there in December 2012.

California has witnessed a veritable explosion of sea life over the past six months, and whales aren't the only ones making waves. Environmental scientists said in December that they were seeing "unprecedented" numbers of brown pelicans in the San Francisco Bay Area. It's been "a months-long carnival of lunging humpback whales, bird clouds, dolphin wizardry, frenzied sea lions, playful killer whales and even visits from marine royalty — blue whales," wrote the Santa Cruz Sentinel. To borrow a line from Melville: Surely all this is not without meaning.

And meaning there is in this tale of Pacific ecology and American history. The increased activity of marine megafauna is being attributed to an anchovy boom: The tiny fish have crowded the coast, densely packed, like so many slivers of silver in schools miles across and fathoms deep, sparking an ongoing feeding frenzy. The flip side of the great anchovy upwelling, though, is the great sardine crash of 2013, which scientists expect to reverberate throughout the ecosystem for decades to come. Cetaceans, sea lions, and pelicans in Monterey may be feasting on anchovies now, but they'll eventually be hurt by sardine scarcity, according to some biologists. An epidemic of sick sea lion pups in Southern California is already being blamed on the decline of sardines.

The last time Pacific sardines declined this steeply was around 1950, shortly after John Steinbeck so exquisitely captured the heyday of the sardine canning industry in his novel Cannery Row.

Sardine landings in California from 1916 to 1947, leading up to the crash that shut down Monterey's canneries (CA Bureau of Marine Fisheries, Courtesy of Scripps Institution of Oceanography Library)

Atlantic editor Corby Kummer described the fishery's oscillation, and its significance, in a 2007 article titled "The Rise of the Sardine." In the decades before Steinbeck wrote his novel, the sardine industry was feeding millions of soldiers in both world wars and sustaining thousands of foreign-born workers—the canners and fishermen of Cannery Row—during the Great Depression. But the largest fishery in the Western hemisphere began to mysteriously decline even while it was being immortalized in literature. By the mid-1950s, it had collapsed entirely.

The canneries shut down and Monterey started losing its smell. From 1967 to 1986 there were severe restrictions on sardine fishing, and Cannery Row "turned into Skid Row," in Kummer's words. Then it went to the tourists: an abandoned cannery was transformed into the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a bronze bust of Steinbeck went up a few blocks away; now "Historic Cannery Row is Monterey's premiere destination for great hotels, shopping, dining, family fun and nightlife."

The sardines came back after a couple of decades, and the stock climbed steadily into the new millennium—hence Kummer's argument, in 2007, that sardines were ready for a culinary revival. But now the population has crashed again.

In the 1950s, the collapse of the sardine industry was blamed on overfishing. It's tempting to blame the current decline on global warming. Neither of those factors deserve single-handed responsibility, though. Oceanographers have known for a little while, now, that there's a natural ocean cycle—albeit, a long one that's not fully understood—that governs the rise and fall of sardine and anchovy stocks in the Pacific.

In 2003, scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) combed through decades of data on physical oceanography, marine biology, and meteorology in the Pacific Ocean in search of longterm cycles governing sardine and anchovy populations. They concluded that sardine and anchovy stocks fluctuate according to a roughly 50-year "boom-and-bust" cycle. "A naturally occurring climate pattern that works its way across the Pacific," also known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, brings warmer temperatures to the California coast approximately every 25 years, prompting a switch-off between anchovies and sardines.

    A simplified graph illustrating the 2003 theory that the Pacific Ocean alternates between
“sardine regime” and “anchovy regime” over 50-year cycles. (F. Chavez, MBARI)

These findings implied that a sardine crash has less to do with overfishing than natural environmental patterns. But to say that overfishing has nothing to do with it, or that it's a completely natural phenomenon, would be an egregious oversimplification.

In 2013, researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California-San Diego delved even further into this cycle. Using data derived from various models and simulations—including a previous study that reconstructed thousands of years of sardine and anchovy population trends based on sedimentary seafloor deposits—they came up with what they believed to be an accurate reproduction of sardine-anchovy fluctuations from 1661 to 2013. This model "showed that the sardine and anchovy fluctuations were not controlled solely by climate, as had been previously suggested," according to a writeup on Scripps's Explorations Now site. The Scripps researchers gave more weight to the role of overfishing in sardine stocks than the MBARI researchers did in 2003.

Both studies underscore the complexity of predicting the rise and fall of global fish populations. George Sugihara, another biologist at Scripps, thinks that all simulations fisheries scientists use to predict populations and set quotas are "fundamentally flawed." These models don't reflect the "dynamic complexity" of the ocean, and can't account for how a population's growth rate might vary in response to, for example, overfishing of another species or introductions of invasive species. His point is reinforced by a recent study, published in December 2013 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, highlighting the "snowball effect" of overfishing and confirming what many have always known about the interconnectedness of different species.

In an excellent piece of reporting for the Monterey County Weekly earlier this year, David Schmalz interviewed representatives from various ocean conservation and fisheries management organizations about their conflicting opinions regarding the future of sardines. NOAA uses a specific formula to project the sardine population and set catch limits each year—a formula that the non-profit advocacy group Oceana wants to change, arguing that it's not restrictive enough. Some commercial fishermen in California, of course, think the formula is already too restrictive.

"When people think of sardines they think of Cannery Row, Steinbeck, the Aquarium," wrote Schmalz. "When people think of anchovies (which they probably don’t), they think of pizza that disgusts them." It may be time to let sardines go, a second time, and come to terms with anchovies, he suggests:

The last time sardines said see you later was a bitter goodbye. This time it isn’t, in part because of the lessons we learned when they all but disappeared. One of those lessons is simple: Do not rely on sardines for a paycheck, because they will abandon you.

Another lesson: resilience. That the Monterey area was able to reinvent itself and become a world-class tourist destination in a matter of a decade is an incredible feat. All around the U.S., there are cities in decline that have been abandoned by the industries that supported them. Monterey, years ago, was one of those cities, and the people that stayed on responded like prizefighters, establishing a sustainable industry (tourism) that will carry on for generations. As Michael Hemp says it, channelling Cannery Row old-timer James Davi: “The best damn thing is that fish went away.”

But the most important lesson their disappearance taught us – and one we are certainly still learning – is respect for the sea, and the balance of its ecosystems. When the fishery began, and truly thrived, there were so many fish in the sea it was hard for anyone to imagine they could be exhausted.

But knowing now that sardines decline naturally, we know that fishing them when they’re low robs them – and the fish who eat them – of future abundance. Whether or not to keep fishing them boils down to one comparison: What is more valuable – the $22 million that U.S. fishermen netted from sardines in 2012, or a future, booming population that will help support more whales, sea lions and dolphins, and tourists that come with them?

In "The Rise of the Sardine," Kummer argued that it was time for "Cannery Row’s signature fish [to] transcend its humble reputation" and become "a chef's staple." But Cannery Row has turned upside down again, and it may be time for a follow-up piece: "The Rise of the Anchovy."