Monterey Bay Aquarium ancho chillin
Nic Coury

Anchovies may have fallen out of fashion as a food for humans, but they are a key food source for whales, dolphins, pelicans and a host of other creatures that make Monterey Bay one of the richest marine ecosystems in the world. 

And Jan. 18, that ecosystem scored a huge victory: Oceana, a marine environmental nonprofit, and Earthjustice, an environmental law nonprofit that represented Oceana, won a lawsuit in the U.S District Court Northern District of California against the federal government. Their argument: that the National Marine Fisheries Service set the anchovy catch limit off the California coast at illegally high levels in October 2016.

The crux of Oceana's case was this: In October 2016, NMFS set the catch limit at 25,000 metric tons annually for the California subpopulation of anchovies when the latest available science suggested the total biomass of that population was between 15,000-32,000 metric tons. 

In other words, the annual catch limit was set within the estimated range of the total population. 

Anchovies, like sardines, are a forage fish—at bottom of the food chain, as far as fish go, and a key part of the food chain—and their population can shift dramatically based on oceanic conditions. Due to factors including environmental changes and fishing, their numbers have plummeted since the 1990s.  

What Oceana argued, and the U.S District Court Northern District of California agreed with, is that it's harmful to fish for anchovy at the stated limit when populations are low and that doing so violates federal law, and harms a key supply of food for the ecosystem. 

The quota NMFS was using was based on population estimates from the 1964 to 1990, not more recent science. 

Geoff Shester, a senior scientist and California campaign director at Oceana, sees the ruling as a victory not just a for marine life, but for the fishermen and whale watching businesses that rely on a healthy anchovy population to feed their product. 

"We know the stock is not always booming, and more importantly, predators are starving," Shester says. "This will benefit larger species, from salmon to rockfish, lingcod to swordfish, sportfishing to commercial fishing. Anchovies are a perfect bite-size species all the way up to the whales."

How soon the ruling will have an impact—or what the impact will be—remains to be seen. 

But Shester says, "This is a turning point." 

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