Oceana and Earthjustice Prevail in Lawsuit to Protect Ocean’s Small Fish


Federal judge rules fishery managers failed to prevent overfishing of northern anchovy


Andrea Treece, Earthjustice, (415) 217-2089

Geoff Shester, Oceana, (831) 643-9266

Jamie Karnik, Oceana, (907) 635-8722

A federal judge has ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) must go back to the drawing board and redo the catch limit for northern anchovy — an important food source for whales, sea lions, brown pelicans, and salmon. Judge Lucy M. Koh ordered the agency to issue a new rule within 120 days that accounts for the drastic fluctuations in anchovy populations and prevents overfishing when the stock is low. Following on a previous ruling in 2018 that found the Fisheries Service’s anchovy catch limit illegal, the court once again found that the agency failed to meet its legal obligations under the nation’s fishery management law — the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act — to base management on the best available science and prevent overfishing by ensuring the amount of fish the agency allows fishermen to catch is rationally related to the amount of fish in the water.

In her ruling, Judge Koh stated “The [Fisheries Service] . . . set the [catch] limit for an indefinite period of time without a mechanism to respond to significant changes in anchovy abundance, even though the best scientific information available established that anchovy population fluctuations are common and extreme. Given this backdrop, it was at minimum arbitrary and capricious for the NMFS to fail to consider whether the [catch limits] would still prevent overfishing, especially given that the anchovy population will fluctuate again in the future.”

Anchovy are a critical forage fish that are fundamental to a healthy ocean food web because they provide an essential food source for larger fish like salmon, as well as whales, dolphins, sea lions, brown pelicans, endangered seabirds, and other ocean animals. While anchovy experience natural population “boom and bust” cycles, the Fisheries Service established a multi-year, unchanging catch limit of 23,573 metric tons that would not change even if the population collapses. From 2009-2015, scientists documented an anchovy population collapse as thousands of sea lions starved to death on U.S. West Coast beaches and brown pelicans abandoned their chicks due to an inability to feed them.

“The science is clear — managing a boom and bust fish population with an unchanging catch limit will worsen natural collapses and harm wildlife that depends on anchovy as a food source,” said Dr. Geoff Shester, California Campaign Director and Senior Scientist with Oceana. “Ocean wildlife, fishing communities, and local economies that include sportfishing and whale watching businesses are reliant on abundant populations of anchovy and other forage fish. Without responsive fishery management, whales, sea lions, pelicans, and other animals risk malnourishment which in turn inhibits their ability to successfully reproduce and raise their babies. With state-of-the-art acoustic surveys — conducted by the Fisheries Service’s own scientists — we can manage this critical forage fish more responsibly. Today’s ruling is hopefully the next step in better management.”

“Everybody who loves and benefits from the ocean depends on anchovies. Anchovies are ecologically essential little fish. Some call them the ‘energy bars of the sea,’ because they are such a critical food source for hundreds of marine creatures,” said Earthjustice attorney Andrea Treece. “We know anchovy populations boom and bust, especially as the planet gets hotter. Making sure anchovies aren’t overfished when the population drops is key to protecting salmon, pelicans, humpback whales, sea lions, and other species.” 

“We went to court to fight for federal fishing rules that rely on science to protect anchovies because it’s critical we act now to keep anchovy populations strong and keep our oceans healthy,” Treece said. “We’re pleased that the court has — once again — told the Fisheries Service it can’t sweep the relevant science under the rug. We’ll be watching as the Fisheries Service does what the judge ordered — re-do federal regulations to prevent people from overfishing anchovies.”

Humpback whale lunge feeding in an anchovy-rich cove, off the coast of Santa Cruz, California.
Humpback whale lunge feeding in an anchovy-rich cove, off the coast of Santa Cruz, Calif. (David Gomez / Getty Images)

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