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We All Know We Should Save the Whales. What About the Sardines?
February 5, 2024

We All Know We Should Save the Whales. What About the Sardines?

Reading Time: 16 minutes

When the little guys thrive, the results can be stunning., Whales and sharks get all the attention. But one tiny ocean resident may matter more than anyone knew.

Last fall, I found myself on a whale watching tour of the waters around New York City. The trip, which employed guides from Gotham Whale and was hosted by the storied nonprofit Riverkeeper, could be seen as a kind of victory lap for the clean water org. After half a century of advocacy—a period that saw the watchdog group win David vs. Goliath legal battles against giants such as Con Edison, General Electric, and the Army Corps of Engineers—the Hudson River and nearby waters are cleaner than they’ve been in the memory of anyone alive today. Lots of wildlife, including whales, is returning to the area.

On board, Tracy Brown, Riverkeeper’s president, spoke briefly, noting that the Hudson estuary has become a model for environmental advocates around the world. As the boat pulled out of Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, schools of juvenile menhaden, or peanut bunker, glistened at the edges of the inlet, as though to highlight her point.

It was a perfect day, weatherwise, and we saw a lot of whales—three humpbacks that have been visiting the city’s waters for several years, and four minke whales, a smaller, less common species with populations in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Antarctic oceans. The whales were feeding on enormous schools of bunker off Sea Bright, New Jersey, and as the boat circled slowly, the New York skyline rotated in and out of the background.

At one point, when a section of the water began to boil with baitfish, our tour guide announced that we might see a lunge—a dramatic feeding behavior in which a whale leaps out of the water from below, perfect for photo-ops and close looks. Everyone moved to one side, tilting the boat slightly.

In the water all around us, thousands and thousands of small fish wheeled. A minute went by, then another. As the fish continued to froth at the surface, Riverkeeper’s habitat restoration manager, George Jackson, borrowed the microphone to help everyone see the forest for the trees.

Menhaden are, Jackson announced, ‘the most important fish in the sea. They’re the linchpin that converts phytoplankton into a biomass that brings striped bass, bluefish, porpoises, tuna, and whales around.’

Not that you would know it. Throughout most of the history of modern conservation, smaller ‘forage’ species—schooling fish like herring, anchovies, and sardines—have been more or less ignored. Everyone from biologists to lawyers has dedicated vast amounts of time and energy to studying the populations of large food-fish like tuna and swordfish and the various threats they face. Riverkeeper, originally the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association, found its early successes fighting for striped bass, the most popular large game fish in waters around the Hudson River. Nobody paid much mind to anchovies or sardines, at least when it came to their well-being. Birds and bigger fish eat them, fisheries scoop them out of the ocean with giant nets and pack them in cans or even, in some cases, just grind them up. These fish are low on the food chain and are not particularly glamorous food for humans—let alone the farm animals that sometimes eat them after they’re ground down.

But in recent years, environmental organizations and fisheries management experts have started to look closely at smaller fish. There’s an emerging consensus that they are more important than anyone had realized. When their numbers dwindle, entire ecosystems can be at risk, from the lowliest marine worms all the way up to the charismatic megafauna we watch on television.

Ensuring their well-being can take work, though, and it’s not just because it can be difficult to make people realize they matter at all. Forage fish are finicky, elusive, and difficult to count. Everyone from scientists to lawmakers is fighting about what we should really be doing to protect them, and when. But it’s increasingly clear that anyone who cares about the ocean should give a lot more attention to the little guys.

Like most people who care about the ocean, I was drawn in by the big animals. I watched Free Willy as a kid and gazed up in awe at the enormous model of a blue whale at the American Museum of Natural History. I read Eyewitness books about sharks.

Most ocean-loving groups start this way too. For Wild Oceans, a marine conservation organization founded in 1973 out of New England, the gateway was bluefin tuna—animals that the World Wildlife Fund describes as ‘tremendous predators from the moment they hatch.’ As adults, they can weigh hundreds of pounds and grow large enough to fill a hotel elevator.

But these hulking creatures were rapidly being overfished. Wild Oceans pushed for tournaments to adopt catch and release policies (as opposed to having participants kill the fish) and worked to establish more stringent fishing regulations. An early high point was developing language that was used in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, a 1976 law that established the federal government’s authority to manage and regulate fishing in the first place.

For decades, Wild Oceans focused its efforts on tuna, marlin, swordfish, and sharks—in other words, big fish. Then, in the 2000s, Ken Hinman, the organization’s president at the time, began looking more closely at bunker, a fish small enough to fit inside a standard mailing envelope.

By volume, more menhaden is harvested than any other species on the Atlantic coast of the United States, the vast majority by the Omega Protein Corporation. Although fishermen, from recreational anglers to those working on industrial boats, refer to plucking any fish out of the water as ‘harvesting,’ it really is the right term to describe the work of the menhaden fleets. Schools of bunker, sometimes numbering in the hundreds of thousands, are located from the sky by airplanes, then encircled by 1,500-foot nets and hauled aboard fishing vessels in extreme quantities. The newest boats in that fleet are nearly 180 feet long and can hold 2 million menhaden at a time.

Until relatively recently, boats fishing for bunker could remove those fish school by school with impunity just about anywhere. But Hinman was determined to spark a shift, writing and speaking about the need to rethink menhaden fishing regulations to anyone who would listen. In the minutes of the Atlantic Menhaden Board’s annual meetings—proceedings that regularly feature testimonials from employees of the Omega Protein Corporation—Hinman began making annual appearances beginning in 2003. He insisted, with increasing fervor, that the bunker populations needed to be assessed with the goal of sustainably providing bunker not only to Omega’s industrial fishing fleet but to all the other animals that eat them too. Otherwise, birds and bigger fish might not have the abundant, easily available food they need to thrive.

Fisheries science and conservation is a world of tucked-in T-shirts and data sheets. It has been dominated historically by environmentally conscientious, data-focused types. In other words: punk rock it is not. Hinman wasn’t smashing guitars or getting arrested, but his bombastic speeches at board meetings made him into something of a Johnny Ramone in those circles. During the 2009 meeting, interrupting a proceeding largely dedicated to the finer points of a data sharing arrangement between the fishermen and the government fisheries scientists, Hinman went off agenda to lambaste the board about what he saw as a failure to update its methods for assessing the population with the evolving science.

‘I am concerned,’ he began, ‘about the lack of ecosystem-based information in the assessment.’

The board, he insisted, was dragging its feet, refusing to look at menhaden in a broader ecological context. The board’s models needed new reference points, and its management strategy needed to be rebuilt around providing as much food as possible for the rest of the ocean. The invaluable resource was being funneled into a single industry—the equivalent of mowing down entire grassland ecosystems to make hay for livestock, risking the starvation of deer and buffalo in the process.

For the veteran menhaden scientists, for whom work on the species had probably long been conducted in relative obscurity, Hinman’s sudden, impassioned appearances must have been a little startling. He ended his comments with a quote from Yogi Berra, telling the board, ‘If you don’t know where you’re going, you probably won’t get there.’

It wasn’t until 2012 that the federal government instituted any coastwide catch limits for bunker. The regulations that are in place remain subject to intense debate among fishermen, managers, and conservation groups. Even for bunker advocates, understanding what is happening with these tiny fish can be difficult.

If you’re trying to save bluefin tuna, you can point to the fact that there are simply too few individual tuna left in the ocean. But small fish are harder to count reliably. There are natural boom-and-bust cycles to their populations. Further, there are simply so many of them. In their enormous, dense schools, they can appear to be thriving—even when the population is on the verge of collapse.

‘It’s extremely difficult to gauge abundance,’ Theresa Labriola, the Pacific project director at Wild Oceans, noted. ‘It can be really deceptive when you see a lot inshore and you see bluefish nipping at menhaden in the fall.’

A decade or so ago, when I first heard about the movement to protect menhaden in New York, even I was skeptical they needed special consideration. When I was fishing off New York and New Jersey, schools of bunker seemed, at times, to stretch to the horizon. I’d seen days on the Hudson River where the menhaden had been so abundant that they’d literally exhausted the oxygen supply along the shoreline, suffocating themselves as they swam. There were millions, hundreds of millions, of these things. It was a resource that seemed nearly infinite.

I was wrong, though. In 2018, picking up on the importance of small fish, New York pushed the industrial-scale menhaden fishery to the other side of the ‘5-mile line,’ meaning fish could be harvested only from outside state waters. The ocean around New York transformed. Suddenly, at the beach, there was life everywhere: fish frothing in the surf, fish flooding inlets. Every herring gull had a half-chewed herring at its feet. In just a few years, people were seeing whales and dolphins regularly from local beaches. The state’s marine environment seemed to have turned a corner in the blink of an eye. While whales and sharks and dolphins are, of course, incredible, I’m often just as happy to watch the massive schools of bunker whirl around off the beaches near me, glistening and surging up at the surface.

The Atlantic coast of the United States is not the only place where people are starting to look more closely at bait. Around the world, similar stories have underscored the importance of small forage fish, although for the most part, the stories begin with populations going in the other direction. Overfishing of herring, anchovies, sardines, and other small fish has led to population collapses not just of the fish themselves but of the other animals that depend on them. Seabirds have been shown to be particularly vulnerable.

‘You need,’ said Philippe Cury, a senior scientist at the French Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, ‘one-third for the birds.’

For decades, Cury has studied the role that these fish play in marine environments, and those five words—Cury’s catchphrase of sorts—have become a slogan for marine bird conservationists. ‘One Third for the Birds’ was originally the subtitle of a 2011 paper in Science, co-authored by Cury, called ‘Global Seabird Response to Forage Fish Depletion.’ The paper documented the population collapses in seabird communities around the world, from kittiwakes in the North Sea to murres in the Gulf of Alaska to gannets and penguins off the coast of Namibia. In each instance, the overharvest of forage fish led to the mass die-off of local colony-nesting seabirds. The birds became incapable of feeding their chicks on the previously abundant resource, and their nests failed en masse. Cliffs and rocky islands, once-raucous sites that had contained thousands of nests, emptied out in a few short years. It was, the paper suggested, a universal phenomenon: Without enough baitfish, seabirds can’t survive.

And even though forage fish are small, and largely studied in their role as prey, they can be an important part of the food chain going in the other direction too. In at least one instance, off the coast of Namibia, the depletion of sardines and anchovies led to the explosion of the jellyfish population.

‘You always had jellyfish,’ Cury said, ‘but they were very rare in that ecosystem. As soon as you overexploited and depressed the biomass of sardine and anchovy, there was an invasion of jellyfish, and you have between 20 and 40 million tons of jellyfish.’

The forage fish, it turned out, had been eating tens of millions of small jellyfish plankton each year, preventing them from reaching maturity. It just wasn’t apparent until that population collapsed.

Although it’s increasingly clear that the fish play a pivotal role in maintaining ecosystem health, the precise effects of letting their numbers dip, and at what point consequences occur, are still being studied. Tim Essington, a scientist at the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, is working to identify these relationships between predators and prey and build them into population models, with the goal of seeing them incorporated into real-world fisheries management practices. Unlike seabirds, which live above the surface (for the most part), fish populations are more difficult to observe directly. One big question is to what extent populations of larger, commercially important fish are affected by forage fish depletion.

‘That turns out,’ Essington said, ‘to be devilishly hard to figure out. Reasonable minds can look at the same data and really disagree.’

He believes that when a forage fish population dips, the impacts are significant to predator species like tuna and striped bass. But he has colleagues who feel that most large ocean-traveling fish can probably adapt and find food elsewhere if they need to. The academic disagreements, he insists, are cordial (although local disagreements between forage fishing industries and other fishermen can be vitriolic).

‘In the perfect world, we would do some giant mad-scientist experiment where we allocated certain oceans where we allowed forage fishing, and others where we didn’t, and kept that experiment going for 20 years, then we would know for sure,’ he said, laughing. ‘But that would be unethical in a lot of ways.’

For Labriola and other forage fish advocates, the finer points of the data science debate are irrelevant. Leaving more food behind for other animals is, for them, a value judgment. It doesn’t take a data scientist, they argue, to infer that the industries are taking too many fish.

‘It’s just vast, vast unimaginable quantities of removal of ocean fish from the ecosystem,’ Labriola said. ‘Common sense can tell you that removing millions of pounds of protein is going to have some negative impact on the ocean.’

Even as scientists work out exactly what that impact is, government management bodies are slowly beginning to incorporate the anticipated needs of predator species into forage fish management practices.

‘Today, if one is tasked with putting together a more robust management plan for a sardine or an anchovy or a herring,’ Essington told me, ‘you need to at least think through: What are the really dependent predators, and how is the successful application of this harvest plan going to potentially risk those things?’

Conservationists and fisheries scientists quibble over the exact amounts of small fish that should be left in the ocean. Wild Oceans says it’s 75 percent; some scientists say 50 percent is enough. The fishing industries themselves, though they may nod to sustainability, seem less eager to embrace a new paradigm.

One of the main qualities that distinguishes forage fisheries from other fishing industries is that many, if not most of the fish, are used in industrial production rather than consumed directly. Tuna, swordfish, and salmon, for instance, make their way to restaurant kitchens and grocery stores, but fish like anchovies, herring, and bunker are often fished by reduction fisheries, industries that catch fish to grind them down for processing into byproducts. Those fishy concoctions are then used to create all kinds of things. Some of it goes to creating fertilizer or animal feed. The menhaden fished in the Atlantic by the Omega Protein Corporation’s fleets is used to produce, among other products, lipstick, animal feed, and omega fish oil dietary supplements. Along the Pacific coast of South America, other industrial fishing companies divert vast quantities of forage fish to the fish meal industry.

‘I grew up,’ said Patricia Majluf, a biologist and senior scientist at Oceana Peru, ‘in a city that reeked of fish meal.’

The Peruvian anchoveta fishery is frequently the largest in the world, and the species itself—an anchovy, similar to the ones caught in Europe—is perhaps the planet’s most abundant fish species. The hundreds of millions of tons harvested annually are used almost exclusively to create that fish meal, a product that is in turn used to make feed for industrial, high-end fish farming. Although you’ve probably never bought anything labeled ‘fish meal,’ if you’ve ever purchased farm-raised salmon or ordered it at a restaurant, you’ve likely indirectly consumed Peruvian fish meal. The reduction process, which emits noxious fumes, has caused environmental problems in coastal cities throughout Peru, like Lima, where Majluf grew up.

The fish meal companies that run the anchoveta fleets, she explained, have a lot of political power, thanks to their critical role in the country’s economy.

‘The industry has this huge, huge lobby,’ she said. ‘So it justifies having the entire coast, with all these cities, stinking of rotten fish and people living in these cities with chimneys spitting these rotten fumes.’

The Peruvian anchoveta industry is indeed enormous and has been a fixture of political intrigue in the country for nearly a century. The sector was nationalized in 1973, and then reprivatized in 1976 after a military coup. On both occasions, factions of fishermen and fish meal factory workers protested the changes. More recently, the government bodies responsible for monitoring the population and setting catch limits have been subject to a series of scandals over their association with the fish meal industry, with accusations of government workers leaking the monitoring software used for enforcement to the companies, and inflating anchoveta population estimates. The implication is that officials are helping the industry cheat and harvest beyond the legal sustainable threshold.

Majluf has become something of a defender of anchovetas, but she wasn’t always as interested in them as she is today. In 1998 she was studying fur seals when a particularly strong El Niño caused an ecological collapse. The anchoveta population plummeted—a worst-case-scenario forage fish bust. As the upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water from lower depths that characterizes the Humboldt Current slowed down, the water warmed, killing off the abundant plankton that feed the anchovetas. The fish starved, and their population plummeted, setting off a domino effect. Majluf had a front-row seat to the fallout.

‘It killed 80 percent of all the animals in my study site,’ she said. ‘That included all the fur seals, all the sea lions, all the penguins, and all the guano birds, which are, like, millions of birds. The colony where I worked, which was the most amazing, abundant place, was almost empty after this big El Niño.’

Small forage fish, especially in the Humboldt Current, which is naturally volatile in temperature and strength, have evolved to survive extreme environmental upheavals, but any species has a limit. Witnessing the collapse firsthand changed Majluf’s perspective entirely, and she adjusted the direction of her career. Contemplating the prospect of an even more erratic climate and an uncertain future for an ecosystem she loved, she shifted her focus down the food chain.

‘I moved off from having fun and studying animal behavior and sitting on a beach to working on fisheries and marine reserves,’ she said wryly, ‘which is horrible political work.’

Much of her career since has been focused on trying to sell the Peruvian public on the ecological (and gastronomic) value of these small fish, hoping to earn a more esteemed (and secure) place for anchovetas Peru.

Part of the reason it’s so easy to overexploit small fish is that they lack cultural cachet. People encounter tuna and swordfish at high-end restaurants; they’re invested in the continued abundance of those species. There’s a seemingly infinite number of television shows about the commercial and sport fishing of large fish. Sardines, on the other hand, are relegated to the alleyways of cartoons, where animated cats pick at their skeletons. Most people I talk to (fishermen aside) have never heard of bunker, let alone anchovetas. It probably makes it easier to grind them up by the millions.

In addition to turning impressive swaths of the Pacific Ocean off South America into wildlife preserves, which give marine animals of all sizes a safe place to hide, Majluf has taken on a somewhat quixotic quest to replace as much of Peru’s reduction fishery as possible with a more sustainable food fishery, elevating the standing of small fish along the way. It has put her up against not only the enormous anchoveta industry but the tastes and eating habits of everyday Peruvians.

‘This was a fish that, in Europe, is very appreciated!’ she said. ‘Everyone eats anchovies! And so what was the difference? You look at them, and they’re’—the anchovetas are—’exactly the same. I mean, physically, you’d find it very hard to distinguish them if you put them on a plate.’

In 2006 Majluf scoured Lima for locally caught canned anchovetas, and eventually found a single company that was producing them—a small operation led by the son-in-law of a fish meal producer who had decided to branch out. Soon afterward, she scored a meeting with Gastón Acurio, a famous Peruvian chef, and offered him a taste. They launched a campaign called Anchoveta Week to get the word out, and all over Lima, suddenly, restaurants were working with the small fish.

‘Within six months, we were sitting at the presidential palace with the president, eating anchovies, with the whole of the world’s television looking,’ Majluf said. ‘This was like a snowball. Within a week, we had something like 18,000 people tasting anchovies for the first time. This whole legend of ‘People won’t eat it’ was completely fake!’

The initiative didn’t destroy the fish meal industry or earn the anchoveta a flashy wildlife special on Netflix. But for a humble baitfish, best known locally for the foul odor it emits when it’s rendered into meal, making its way to the presidential dinner table was a Cinderella moment. It’s probably the highest honor ever bestowed on a forage fish, at least so far. In the years since the first Anchoveta Week, the fish has become a regular, if small, part of the Peruvian diet.

Back on the boat in the Atlantic, despite the brief meditation on bunker, whales were still the star of the show. None lunged up through the school of fish, but several continued to surface as they grazed along the edges, apparently indifferent to us. They seemed pretty at ease for animals that, less than a century ago, were subject to an unfathomable industrial-scale slaughter by human beings. In the cabin, a promotional video played on a loop, featuring humpback whales lunging up, sending waves of bunker that seemed anything but at ease into the air around them.

In marine conservation, whales loom as large as, well, whales. More than any other ocean-dwelling creature, they epitomize the movement to save, as the saying goes, wildlife in the ocean. ‘Save the Whales,’ the protest-era slogan that for half a century has been spoken, shouted, plastered on signs, and printed on T-shirts is today so familiar that to say it out loud feels a little ridiculous. Still, it’s got staying power, and there are plenty of true believers around: young, T-shirt-wearing petitioners who hang around near subway stations with clipboards. I saw a ‘Save the Whales’ sticker slapped on a street sign just the other day. And of course we should save the whales, in whatever ways we can. Who could disagree? Still, nobody ever walks up to you in the street and asks you to Save the Sardines.

Last year, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission increased the total allowable menhaden catch in the Chesapeake Bay, allowing the Omega Protein fleets to increase their take from the 2021 and 2022 seasons by 20 percent—a controversial decision that sparked outrage from several conservation and fishing organizations, as well as a lawsuit. Still, the overall situation in the Chesapeake Bay is seen as a bright spot by some conservationists concerned about forage fish. In recent years, after a couple of decades of Ken Hinman’s appearances, the council has adopted a new model for setting its menhaden catch limits, one that considers the effects on dependent predator species such as striped bass in these calculations. Lack of ‘Save the Bunker’ T-shirts aside, there’s a motivated group of fishermen and conservationists who show up to the meetings of state management agencies and speak. As the models continue to learn and real-world data continues to be plugged in year after year, it seems inevitable that the menhaden fishery, at least, will be managed, increasingly, for the benefit of the ecosystem at large.

I stepped off the boat and walked along Emmons Avenue, where everyone in the neighborhood seemed to be hanging out. There were Hasidic families picnicking on benches, and couples walking by speaking Russian and Chinese. A group of older sunburned guys, arms overloaded with coolers and fishing gear, jogged awkwardly toward a party fishing boat that appeared to be on the verge of pulling out for the night. People continued to stream out of the adjoining streets, all of them seemingly planning to pace the sidewalks along the edges of Sheepshead Bay.

At the foot of the pilings below one of the piers, I saw a burst of movement—a school of small menhaden breaking the surface as something attacked. It wasn’t a whale lunging, but a striped bass or a bluefish taking a shot at them from below. Scanning the water, I could make out a few objects littered on the bottom: old boat husks, a rusted shopping cart, a bicycle, and some cruddy 5-gallon buckets. Everything down there was shimmering, flitting in and out of sight, and suddenly I realized why. Every inch of water in sight was coursing with juvenile bunker.

As my eyes adjusted, I realized that it wasn’t just one or two schools crowding the space between piers. Small menhaden, as far as I could tell, filled the entire inlet, packing tightly at the surface wherever there were predators nearby. As I ran my eyes along the opposite shore of the bay, I saw fish exploding at the top of the water on the other side, wheeling up against moored boats and small docks as gulls hovered overhead and herons hid perched nearby. As I continued to walk toward the train, I passed a girl of about 9 or 10 pleading with her family as they walked a few feet ahead of her.

‘I’m telling you!’ she cried, balling up her fists. ‘I swear to God! Look! There’s a million fish down there!


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