Whale spouts shoot up from the left, right and center, lighting up in the setting sun. Off the starboard side of the boat, juvenile sea lions number in the hundreds, roiling the water’s surface into whitecaps. Then, two humpbacks break the surface just 50 feet from the boat, rolling massive, majestic bodies forward on their way back under. The last part of the whales to touch air are the tailfins, flipping up against the horizon, stopping, and then slowly sinking back to the deep.

There’s so much poetry in motion that it’s hard to resist the idea that you are witnessing something historic, that these humpback whales – nearly all of whom normally migrate to Mexico some time in the fall – are trying to tell us something. And they are, if we listen.

~ ~ ~

There’s a simple explanation why this fall’s whale watching season was so unusually epic on Monterey Bay: anchovies. Thousands of tons of oily, wriggling anchovies, far more than whale watch operators are accustomed to seeing this time of year, or ever.

Nancy Black, a marine biologist and owner of Monterey Bay Whale Watch, has been leading bay trips for 26 years.

“We’ve never seen so many whales,” she says, “and never this many anchovies.”

This gathering can be seen as a sign of a sea change: Sardines, the iconic, glinting schoolers so important to Monterey’s rise, are in rapid decline for the first time in a half century – since the fishery collapsed in the 1950s.

Today that collapse is understood in much greater complexity. Overfishing played its part, but it wasn’t the only factor behind the decline.

That understanding has led to newly revised sardine fishing quotas, and newly heated debates over their justice. Some feel they’re needlessly – even irresponsibly – restrictive. Some believe they don’t gonearly far enough, adding that we shouldn’t be fishing sardines at all, since we risk throwing off entire ecosystems.

The one thing everyone agrees on is that sardines are crashing, and quickly. Will they recover, and reach former peaks? Or, we might be making the same mistake we made last century: Fishing them when they’re down, and holding them from getting back up. At stake is the future of Pacific sardines.

~ ~ ~

You won’t find them on any veterans memorials, but sardines – by the billions – died to help us fight, and win, the Second World War. In 1939 alone, 460,000 tons of sardines were caught off Monterey’s coast, most of which were shipped to the front. That’s 980 million pounds, about 3 billion sardines.

Sardines’ survival strategy is a function of those numbers – they form large schools that can swell into the millions.

Then there are the real impressive numbers: Under the right conditions, a large, mature female can produce close to a million eggs in a single seven-month spawning season. To keep up, a hen would have to lay almost 5,000 eggs per day.

“Older [females] can continually spawn month after month,” says Alec MacCall, a senior scientist at the Santa Cruz office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Fisheries Service. “They can produce thousands of eggs per week.”

In a world where sardines only had to worry about the bigger fish, these qualities served them well. Then along came humans, and nets. Schooling in massive numbers no longer helped sardines – it helped drive them close to extinction.

Monterey’s sardine fishery, at its peak in the late 1930s, employed up to 8,000 people and had two dozen canneries.

“Monterey was a small town in those days,” says Cannery Row historian Michael Hemp. “That was a lot of people for the workforce. And the rest of the economy also depended on the industry.”

Its vigor made it one of the most productive fisheries on the planet.

But it didn’t last.

“I made a graph of sardine abundance,” says NOAA’s MacCall. “I started at 3 million tons in 1930. By 1970, my pencil lead was too thick to show the [paucity] we had left. It was less than one thousandth of what we began with.”

For Monterey, the collapse was comprehensive: The town’s credit system, which was built upon the trust of sardine abundance, imploded. Along Cannery Row, buildings fell into decay, and others simply went up in flames. In the span of a decade, Monterey’s boom went bust, and the thriving burg became a ghost town.

“They never built a Plan B,” Hemp says.

Thankfully it did open the door to a more profitable – and sustainable – Plan C: tourism, an option that wasn’t viable amid the smell and soot.

As Hemp says, tourists would have been “stunk out of town.”

In the wake of that collapse, famed marine biologist Ed Ricketts investigated where the sardines had gone. His conclusion? “They’re in cans.”

Sardines were aggressively overfished well into the 1950s, and their eventual recovery was slowed – and diminished – by those practices.

But scientists also now know – contrary to Ricketts’ conclusion – that the environment played a key role in that decline, that sardines naturally run in cycles of 20-30 years of abundance, and vice versa.

That is, until recently.

~ ~ ~

Tiny Sardines Mighty Lessons_2

In addition to attracting unprecedented amounts of whales on Monterey Bay, the surge of anchovies are drawing massive flocks of hungry seabirds off the coast of Santa Cruz.

Sardines like it hot. Anchovies like it cool.

That’s one way to understand how the ocean goes through cycles. In the Pacific, one of those cycles is called Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), a two – or three-decade cycle with a profound impact on sardine and anchovy populations, whose reproductive rates are bolstered or hindered by the ocean’s surface temperatures. Sardines prefer to get it on in warmer waters, anchovies play it cool.

PDO cycles weren’t identified until 1997, and their connection to sardines and anchovies wasn’t discovered until five years later. Francisco Chaveza senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), discovered it after compiling 100 years of data that compared anchovy and sardine populations against surface sea temperatures.

“There’s a warm and a cold cycle to it,” says Chavez, adding that while PDO cycles are not yet completely understood, “we think it has to do with ocean gyres.”

The gyres are massive, rotating currents in the world’s major oceans that – when seen animated – look like a slow – moving whirlpool. The North Pacific Gyre spans from California to Japan, circulating clockwise. Chavez believes that the surface temperature shifts seen in PDO cycles can be explained by changes in the gyre’s rotating speed: Basically, when the “arms” of the gyre move faster, they bring deep water closer to the surface, cooling the upper layer of the sea.

And the data that Chavez has compiled shows a clear correlation between PDO cycles and sardine and anchovy populations, a rotation that moves between what he calls a “sardine regime” and an “anchovy regime.”

But that correlation curiously stopped about 10 years ago.

“We went through a very clear shift after ’97 to ’99. The ocean has been cooler,” he says.

The sardine populations in Japan and Peru began to drop sharply in the late ’90s, as predicted by his theory, and initially, Pacific sardines did too. But in 2003, Pacific sardines began trending sharply upward until 2006, when their population peaked about 1.3 million metric tons, the highest number in the current regime.

“The sardines didn’t hear about [the expected drop], at least in California,” says Chavez, who thinks other environmental factors might have played a part.

“I don’t know why, [but] temperature is not the only indicator.”

The sardines have slid fast, however, since that 2006 peak, and their projected biomass for next January is 378,120 metric tons, a drop of more than 70 percent from 2006.

“The sardines have really started to go,” says Chavez, adding that the abundance of anchovies in Monterey Bay this fall and winter can be seen as a sign.

A regime change has come.

~ ~ ~

The formula that informs how many sardines can be fished is complicated.

NOAA projects the sardine population for the following year. Then, they subtract a number called the “cutoff” (currently, that number is set at 150,000 metric tons) – if population estimates are less than that number, no fishing is permitted the following year. What remains after the subtraction is then multiplied by two variables. The first is established by water temperatures – the cooler the water, the lower it gets (currently it’s 0.15) The second is determined by how much of the population is thought to be in U.S. waters (currently 87 percent, or 0.87).

The formula’s complexity reflects the fact that the U.S. sardine fishery is among the most progressive fisheries in the world, one with built-in checks and balances, plus controls that fluctuate with the environment.

“We have a lower fishing rate, a guaranteed [fishing] cutoff based on abundance, a whole bunch of things that have never been done before on a fishery,” MacCall says. “And it’s maybe the only fishery in the world with a temperature control.”

Yet that formula, with its multiple, unprecedented controls, is still seen by some as misguided.

Oceana is among those who find it flawed. The conservation and advocacy nonprofit has been lobbying the last few years to change the formula, to further limit fishing by strengthening the temperature variable – increasing restrictions further in low temperatures – and by bumping up the cutoff from 150,000 to 600,000 metric tons, almost twice NOAA’s current stock assessment. Oceana’s proposal was rejected, which prompted them to sue the government in response. (The case is in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.)

Geoff Shester, the California program director for Oceana, says there are major reasons why stricter limits are vital.

“When you fish in a natural decline there are three primary results,” says Shester. “You make the natural decline a much more severe collapse. That collapse then drives down the population further than it naturally would have dropped to, and when conditions turn around again… it takes a lot longer for those stocks to rebuild themselves than they naturally would have.”

NOAA’s MacCall agrees: “You want to take advantage [of the stock] when it’s productive, but when it’s not, you want to leave it alone.”

MacCall also points out the success of current strategies. “Right now we have had a sardine stock that has lasted at least 30 years,” he says. “That’s 10 years more than any sardine [fishery] ever in the history of the world. I’d call that a victory.”

Less of a victory, however, is that U.S. fishermen fell short of meeting the sardine quota last year, a clear sign that the formula might not be strong enough.

That is partly why Shester, despite some hard-fought victories, remains far from ebullient.

“I still believe it may very well be too little too late.”

History, in other words, might be repeating itself.

~ ~ ~

Last month the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) – a group of 14 state, tribal and appointed representatives – met to vote on 2014’s sardine quota. In years past, such meetings inspired little fanfare, and usually amounted to the council rubber stamping a number created by the management formula. But this year, the meeting caused waves that will ripple across the ocean.

By a 7-6 vote, the council approved a quota reducing the allowable U.S. Pacific catch by 70 percent January through June 2014, from 18,073 metric tons last year to 5,446 metric tons this year.

What made that decision so controversial wasn’t that the quota was substantially lowered. It was that – unlike past years – that reduction wasn’t dictated purely by the formula. Influenced by Oceana, enough people on the council were convinced sardines are in trouble, and the formula’s number wasn’t enough.

So they took that number, and dropped it another 33 percent.

Some, including Diane Pleschner-Steele, the executive director of the Moss Landing-based California Wetfish Producers Association (CWPA), were less than pleased with the added reduction.

“My disappointment is for the precedent the council set,” she says. “They have harmed the industry unnecessarily.”

Shester disagrees, and has been lobbying for a complete shutdown of sardine fishing altogether.

“All signs are pointing to the fact that this stock is in trouble, in a crash,” he says. “If we care about keeping sardines, and the ability for them to recover, then the sooner we stop fishing sardines, the better it is for everyone.”

By everyone, Shester is referring to the people that appreciate having whales, dolphins and bigger fish in the sea. Like any small fish that can swell to abundance, sardines are a key source of food for the marine mammals that inspire us. They play an important role of taking plankton – their food – and transferring those nutrients up the food chain.

Pacific Grove native and Carmel resident David Crabbe – who was a commercial fisherman for 25 years and who now represents California fishermen on the PFMC – was one of the six dissenting votes. He feels the number created by the formula is adequately conservative already, the added reduction too severe.

“In the wetfish world, these volumes of fish are highly volatile,” he says. “What is actually going to show up this year is fairly uncertain.”

CWPA’s Pleschner-Steele is more specific with her criticism of the cuts, saying that government acoustical surveys don’t include the ocean’s surface, where the species resides. “They’re missing the top 30-odd feet,” she says, “which is where most of the sardines are.”

Industry surveys – using aerial spotting – put the number of sardines at 900,000 metric tons, more than double NOAA’s estimate.

THE POOR ANCHOVY. IT JUST CAN’T GET ANY LOVE. IT’S LIKE THE SOYBEAN OF THE SEA.

“The stock assessment is way underestimating the fish in the ocean,” she says.

Oceana’s Shester disagrees, celebrating the reduced sardine quota as “a turning point for the council.”

He adds, “Ultimately, it shows why we have managers make decisions, not just having a formula. Particularly when there’s a huge risk of a long-term impact.”

~ ~ ~

Tiny Sardines Mighty Lessons_3

Former commercial fisherman David Crabbe represents California fishermen on the PFMC and was against lowering the controversial sardine quota—and one of six votes dissenting against seven.

The poor anchovy. It just can’t get any love. It’s like the soybean of the sea, a puny pack of protein whose primary usefulness to humans is to feed other fish, the kinds we actually like to eat.

When people think of sardines they think of Cannery Row, Steinbeck, the Aquarium. When people think of anchovies (which they probably don’t), they think of pizza that disgusts them. They are hated on so hard, in fact, that “hold the anchovies” became a catchphrase.

But it’s time to start thinking about anchovies, and learning to love them.

Like sardines, anchovies are schooling fish that provide important food for mammals and bigger fish. Like us, they mostly gather close the coast because they’re smaller than sardines and not big enough to migrate.

That was the case this fall, when millions of them schooled in Monterey Bay, fueling the frenzy of humpback whale and sea lion feeding so incredible it had to be seen to be believed.

Only a dearth of scientific attention accompanies the societal ignorance, making it hard for research fishery biologists like NOAA’s Kevin Hill – who authored the agency’s sardine stock assessment – to announce the anchovy is on the rise.

“At the moment, we know a lot more about the status of sardine than we do anchovy,” he writes in an email. “So far there is no empirical evidence of an anchovy resurgence in California… I’ve heard reports of the anchovy fishery picking up in Monterey, but we’ve seen similar [even larger] upticks in the catch over the past 15 years.”

But the locals who live and breathe the Monterey Bay fishery know a boom when they see one.

“We’re seeing a lot of them,” says Pleschner-Steele. “A lot a lot a lot.”

“It’s never been like this with sardines,” says Monterey Bay Whale Watch’s Nancy Black.

In his quarter-century of fishing, Crabbe knows how abundant anchovies can become.

“I saw mountains of anchovies,” he says. “Under the right conditions, there’s an amazing amount of fish. It wasn’t uncommon to have massive amounts in the Moss Landing channel, well over 100,000 tons… continual for a square mile.”

MBARI’s Chavez adds a wrinkle, saying that a warmer world – one with elevated levels of CO2 in the ocean’s surface – favors anchovies over sardines.

~ ~ ~

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?

Sardines are still green, or “best choice,” on the Aquarium’s Seafood Watch list. Shester believes that status should be revisited, in light of recent developments. In his mind, there are better choices out there.

“Just like predators in the sea: Sometimes there are sardines, sometimes there are anchovies. They’ve got to know how to switch,” he says. “We need to fish like the predators.”

The predators that helped sound the regime change, the myriad whales out on the bay this fall and winter, have already said their goodbyes to sardines, flipping up their flukes against the setting sun.

Or maybe they were just greeting the anchovies, before dipping back underwater to fish like predators.

Tiny Sardines Mighty Lessons_4
Additional reporting by Kera Abraham.

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