Anchovies are being seen in “phenomenal numbers” in Howe Sound, likely as a result of El Nino’s warming impact on West Coast waters, a Vancouver Aquarium biologist says.
“Anchovies are a southern species centred in California around Catalina Island,” said Dr. Jeff Marliave, vice-president of marine science at the Vancouver Aquarium. “They are here from time to time but it tends to be in the warm El Nino years.”
As well as recording many sightings of the fish, the aquarium’s Howe Sound Research and Conservation Group, established in 1996 to monitor the sound, has had multiple reports from many local residents who have spotted large schools of anchovies, Marliave said.
“It’s not a one-off observation. They are being observed everywhere in Howe Sound from Burrard Inlet to Horseshoe Bay and Gibsons,” he said. “These are phenomenal numbers. It sounds like they are super abundant.”
Even kayakers are noticing large schools of anchovies in waters less than five feet deep, Marliave noted.
The presence of the northern anchovy (also known as the Californian anchovy) is important because it’s a good food source for other species, from jellyfish to dolphins. They are particularly good for dolphins, which need a high fat content in their food, Marliave said.
“Anyone who knows their pizza and caesar salads knows oil is what it’s all about with anchovies,” he said. “They are food throughout their lives. That’s why their schools are so important — there is safety in numbers. Someone will get eaten but hopefully not you.”
Marliave said anchovies could have been making a comeback here for a while. He noted that last September, the Squamish Streamkeepers — a volunteer group that does spawning enhancement work — sent Marliave a photo asking for help to identify a fish species.
“I said they were all herring but I may have been wrong. It could have been a mix of herring and anchovy,” he said.
According to the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the northern anchovy is easily recognized by its long upper jaw. The fish, which can reach 25 centimetres in length, are coloured blue-green on its back and have a silver belly and sides.
He said the first person to report anchovies off the B.C. coast in recent years was former Bowen Island Mayor Bob Turner, who has posted videos online of anchovy schools.
In a post dated June 30, Turner writes: “The more I talk to people in the know, the more I conclude that anchovy have been a major factor in the recent remarkable abundance of salmon, whales and sea lions around Bowen and in Howe Sound. So anchovies rule my life right now!”
Megan Sewell, director of Sewell’s Marina in Horseshoe Bay, said she first noticed anchovies last year when she saw a big school of larvae. She was curious about what they were so sent a photo to Marliave, who identified them. A day later, she said, her brother spotted a school of adult anchovies that was so large it covered one-eighth of the basin of Horseshoe Bay.
“It was really exciting to see the beginning stages of their life to the adult schools,” Sewell said.
Marliave said anchovy schools are very interesting to observe because when they filter out plankton during feeding they open their jaws, and the result is “flashes like a silver dollar at the head end” of the fish.
According to the DFO, a small anchovy fishery exists off the west coast of Vancouver Island, with the fish caught primarily for bait.