Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor overtaken by dead anchovies

October 22, 2013

If you were anywhere near the Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor this weekend, you might have noticed all of the small dead fish floating near the surface. While at Aldo’s for brunch Saturday, I was amazed by the sheer amount of fish cadavers in the water.

Jason Hoppin of the Santa Cruz Sentinel got the scoop on what was up with the mass die-off.Anchovy_closeup

Without question, the Monterey Bay has been alive for weeks with an abundance of life. And from throngs of humpback whales to Alfred Hitchcock-level flocks of birds, a primary reason is epic schools of anchovies that help form the bottom of the marine food chain.

But when the conditions are right and those anchovies take a fateful turn into the Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor, they can trigger a widespread die-off. That was the case Saturday morning, when the return of an infrequent but not atypical phenomenon briefly brought harbor paddling and boating activity to a halt.

“It was a die-off and it was an inconvenience, and it could have been much worse,” Port Director Lisa Ekers said.

Four massive anchovy kills have been documented in harbor history: in 1964, 1974, 1980 and 1984. Each one forced the removal of 1,000 to 2,000 tons of stinky fish, and the Port District has been after solutions for more than a decade.

It installed 30 aerators to replenish closely monitored oxygen levels in the water (when activated, they essentially turn the harbor into a giant fish tank). And Ekers noted conditions have to be right — large numbers of fish, little tidal action or wind, and a hot sun — for the population to collapse.

“Normally fish can swim in and out of here,” Ekers said. “This one was unusual in that it wasn’t that large of a school, and it died off suddenly.”

Volunteers are being sought to help with the cleanup. And with crab season coming, crab fishers are also invited to collect some of the dead fish for bait. The rest will be taken to the landfill for their final burial.

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