If someone were to ask you the question what’s the most abundant and frequently found fish in Lower New York Bay, including Raritan Bay and Sandy Hook Bay? What would you first think it might be, a type of flounder, bass or maybe even a shark.
All wrong. Many people I think would be surprised by the answer.
It’s actually a small, silvery, semi-transparent schooling fish called a Bay Anchovy. Not though the type of anchovy you put on a pizza.
The small silvery fish that swims in New York Harbor doesn’t have enough substance or taste to truly enjoy. It’s more salt than fish flavor. I mean you can’t just pop any old fish in your mouth.
The best-flavored anchovies are harvested from the Mediterranean Sea and the Bay Of Biscay. It’s within these far-off European waters that the anchovies seem to be a juicy morsel of food, smooth-textured, with a perfect balance between savory and salty. Just right for a tasty fish topping on a cheese pizza.
Unfortunately, over the last few decades, anchovy populations from Europe have at times reached all time lows due primarily to over-fishing. A significant reason why anchovies are so expensive in many local pizza restaurants, that is if you can find them at all. While anchovies on a pizza were a popular treat 30 or more years ago, most pizza places today don’t even have anchovies if you ask for them. People tastes have changed to other less expensive toppings.
Meanwhile In New York Harbor, our anchovies are not a popular food source for humans, but they nonetheless play a very important role in the health of our estuary. Without this modest fish there just wouldn’t be enough food for wildlife to survive in and near the water.
Anchovies can be found swimming throughout this urban-suburban estuary during the warmer months of the year. They rarely exceed 4 inches in length and look like shiners or silversides, but have a rounded head with a short snout. The body has silvery stripe along the sides, a single dorsal fin on the back, and a forked tail fin.
The bay anchovy consumes zooplankton, including fish larvae and copepods, and, in turn, is primary prey for several significant species of game fish including Bluefish, Striped bass, Fluke, and Weakfish. In some cases Bay Anchovies may make between 60 to 90 percent of the diets of large fish easting fish. In addition, water birds, such as the New Jersey endangered Least Tern and other terns, including the Common Tern and Royal Tern, feed extensively on anchovies throughout the summer.
The little Bay Anchovy is a significant food source for almost every predatory fish and fish easting shore bird within New York Harbor. Without Bay Anchovies around many animals wouldn’t have the strength for breeding activities or enough food to nourish their young. Life in our estuary is strongly connected to Bay Anchovy abundance. Lots of estuarine animals are fond of feasting on anchovies.
Yet, many places down south are reporting dramatic declines of Bay Anchovy populations since at least 2000, including Delaware Bay, Chesapeake Bay and along the South Carolina coast. This is the first long-term decline ever recorded for the Bay Anchovy. Perhaps an indicator of a food chain imbalance and a reason why Weakfish populations are also in decline in some of these estuarine systems.
No one is quite sure why Bay Anchovy populations are falling off, though there are many theories. Global warming could be the answer, since Bay Anchovies tend to prefer cooler waters in the North Atlantic. Maybe the decline is due to an increase in jellyfish distribution or an increase of polluted runoff and freshwater entering waterways from storm drains, which degrades the estuarine habitat upon which the Bay Anchovy and its prey lives. The waning of Bay Anchovy populations also may be due to being entrained and impinged in ever-increasing power plant cooling systems. Any one of these or all of these factors could be playing a role in the lack of abundance of Bay Anchovies.
While there are no hard facts to suggest the Bay Anchovy population is in decline within New York Harbor, we should take note of what is occurring down south as perhaps an omen of what is to come. Now is the time to take precautions to preserve our important forage fish population, which so many larger fish and water birds depend on for their survival.
Certainly, at a bare minimum, we need to spend time to monitor our local Bay Anchovy population and to determine important feeding and nursery areas within New York Harbor. We also need to put limits on coastal development and increase open space and restoration efforts of tidal wetlands and beaches. We need to reduce nutrient run off (primarily phosphorus and nitrogen) from urban development, and reduce sediment runoff by encouraging people to use natural vegetative buffers near waterways. Furthermore, we need to continue to monitor the effects of global warming on marine ecosystems.
These and other actions are important for the long-term survival of the little Bay Anchovy and the many species that prey upon it. The Bay Anchovy, though small in size, is an important and key species in the food web of New York Harbor. Living organisms within this estuary co-exist in a network of interdependent feeding relationships, take away one primary species and the whole food web becomes severely degraded for a very long time.
For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, and Lower New York Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://natureontheedgenyc.blogspot.com/