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Hungry? Then just keep swimming

Yesterday I had some time to kill before getting a COVID test, and, as usual, wandered down to the ocean. This time I was at Seacliff State Beach. It was pretty crowded, so I walked onto the pier to see if the fishermen were having any luck. They weren't, really. One man kept catching jack silversides (Atherinopsis californiensis) that were too small to keep. There was a lot of banter about sharks and bait and crabs, but what I witnessed yesterday confirms my hypothesis that a lot of what people call "fishing" is merely an excuse to get outside for a few hours. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

As for me, I have nowhere near enough patience to make a decent fisherman. I did, however keep myself amused by eavesdropping on their conversations and writing snippets in my nature journal. I did also find myself mesmerized by the anchovies. Watch for yourself.

Northern anchovies (Engraulis mordax) at Seacliff State Beach
© Allison J. Gong

Like sardines, anchovies are planktivorous filter feeders. If you watch the video again and can focus on an individual fish for a while, you'll see that as it swims forward, the front end becomes white and bulbous for a few seconds. That's sunlight reflecting off the fish's jaws. Anchovies have metallic silver coloring, which is a defense against predators. For fish that live in surface waters that are brightly lit, all of those glinting flashes of light make it difficult for a predator to zero in on a single fish to pursue. There is safety in numbers, and for anchovies the silvery coloring combined with schooling behavior means that if a predator manages to catch some of the fish in the baitball, most will avoid being eaten. This works against predators such as larger fish, squid, and birds, which generally capture one or a few fish at a time. But if the predator happens to be a humpback whale, which is capable of engulfing the entire school, then the anchovies are SOL. Think about it, though. For any anchovy, the probability of encountering a larger fish, squid, or bird is much higher than encountering a humpback or blue whale. Thus the selective advantage of schooling!

Okay, now back to the feeding. Anchovies have really long jaws for their size and can, like snakes, open their mouths very wide. This allows them to filter as much water as possible as they swim. Food, mostly plankton, is caught on the gill rakers, which are bony or cartilaginous structures projecting forward (i.e., towards the mouth) from the gill arches. Some fishes' gill rakers are nothing more than short nubs. Filter feeding fishes such as anchovies have long thin gill rakers. Water enters the mouth as the fish swims forward, and plankton is caught on the array of gill rakers. The water then passes over the gill filaments, where respiratory exchange occurs, and then out from underneath the operculum. Anchovies cannot suck water into their mouths, and thus can feed only while swimming forward, or ramming water into the mouth. This is a type of feeding called ram feeding.

These anchovies were very close to shore. They were feeding, so obviously there was plankton in the water. I haven't done a plankton tow in a while, as I generally assume that fall/winter plankton isn't as interesting as spring/summer plankton. However, given the presence of feeding anchovies inshore, it might be time to test that assumption.

What do you think?

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