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Look Past the Smell: Anchovies Feed an Ecosystem


Last week millions of anchovies swam in the Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor and then died due to lack of oxygen. Beaches in Aptos also saw anchovy die-offs.

KUSP’s Adia White reports the die-off is a by-product of a periodic boom in the coastal anchovy population that is a boon for marine life.


There’s one thing everyone down here at the Santa Cruz harbor can agree on. The smell.

Photo: Duncan Lively

Photo: Duncan Lively

The smell belongs to thousands of dead anchovies floating in the harbor. The Anchovies swam into the shallow waters of the Harbor last Wednesday to escape predators. They suffocated there due to a lack of sufficient oxygen, despite the best efforts of the harbor, which as installed machines to aerate the water. This sort of thing is not uncommon at this time of year, but the sheer number of anchovies we are seeing now has many stunned.

“I’ve been working here for twenty years and we never had something like this,” says Arturo Zavala, a maintenance worker at the harbor. “We had a little bit last year but not something like this.”

He said they cleared three tons of anchovies from the harbor last Thursday. Today the remaining anchovies are disintegrating. As we speak, pedestrians cover their noses with their tee shirts, Arturo, however, has acclimated to the smell.

“I don’t even smell it anymore, but it stinks yeah.”

Organizing a Volunteer Clean Up

A kayaker named Jude pitches in by netting out the dead anchovies. By now they resemble more of a soup. Many of the pieces are so broken up that they slip through the holes in the net. A nearby volunteer seems to be having better luck scooping out the fish with a rake.

“There’s some half some wholes, some half. Just blobs off stuff and they’re just starting to decay. We need some people down here to help get them out,” she says.

Trudy Ransom is the owner of the SUP Shack at the Santa Cruz harbor. She helped orchestrate what she says was around six hundred volunteers to help clean out the harbor. As soon as the anchovies began dying off, Trudy was one of the first to grab a net and scoop them out. Even she however, couldn’t stand to get near the water by the third day.

“On day one when the anchovies were just freshly dead they were fairly intact, like when you would go to the fish market, it was a little like that. Day two they were getting a little fluffy, by day three, which was this Saturday I was just almost on the verge of hurling into the harbor. It really took only three days for them to disintegrate that much that you needed a nose peg. I was impressed with my friends that were even doing it that day.”

Anchovy Boom Creates Sea Life Spectacle

Photo: Adia White

Photo: Adia White

Just a short walk to the mouth of the harbor, something entirely different is taking place. Five harbor seals play in the waves and what looks like millions of birds swarm not too far off from the shore. Talia, a visitor from Portland admires the spectacle.

“From far away it looks almost like an oil slick or something. It’s dark there, but it’s moving when you look closely. It’s overwhelming how many there are.”

These birds are sooty shearwaters. They migrate to the Monterey Bay from New Zealand every year. Anchovies are just one of the things that bring them all the way up here. Lisa Uttal, the director of the National Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary says the anchovies that don’t swim into shallow water and die provide a feast for creatures throughout the Monterey Bay ecosystem.

“Everything from the Humpback whales that we’ve been seeing like crazy, the grey whales, even rockfish, halibut and pelicans. All these bird we see are feeding on the anchovies that are here.” she says. “So it’s making an incredible incredible time to get out into the Monterey bay national marine sanctuary and see these animals and do some wildlife viewing.”

edit-bird with sardine 2

Photo: Adia White

This phenomenon is especially exciting for us spectators as Whales, Sea lions and other wildlife pursue the fleeing anchovies into shallower waters. Lisa points out that this increased proximity to the shoreline means more people have been getting a little too close to the wildlife.

“It can be very dangerous if a whale comes up and you’re in a Kayak. It’s a big fifty-two ton animal that’s going to have a lot of force and a lot of power and it can be very dangerous if you’re too close. Similarly, just by interacting with that animal, if they know you’re there or if you change their behavior in any way, you’re affecting their feeding. This is a natural behavior that you do not want to impact.”

The anchovy population appears to grow and shrink following a regular cycle, according to a 2003 study by Francisco Chavez, an oceanographer from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. Population peaks can last about ten years and occur every fifty.

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