Giant schools of northern anchovies off La Jolla - San Diego, California News Station - KFMB Channel 8 - cbs8.com

Giant schools of northern anchovies off La Jolla

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SAN DIEGO (CNS) - A school of California anchovies so big it rivals anything seen off the San Diego coast in three decades was spotted off La Jolla by researchers with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, it was announced Tuesday.

"Multimillions" of the finger-sized fishes prized on pizzas and in animal feed -- also called Northern anchovy -- created a dark-blue band in shallow waters just off the coast when first spotted Monday.

Scripps scientists say they haven't seen such an aggregation in more than 30 years, but were unclear why the large school moved into shallow waters off the coast.

Phil Hastings, a marine biology professor and curator of the marine vertebrate collection at the UC San Diego-connected Scripps, said the school swam north and was mostly dissipated this evening.

"The schools part as swimmers or sea lions" pass through, he told City News Service. "Leopard sharks were feeding on them this morning."

He had no explanation for the huge swarm 15 meters to 100 meters wide and extending from Scripps Pier to a distant point north. But he noted that the water temperature at Scripps Pier hit 74 degrees today, "pretty much the warmest water the species has been reported in."

Hastings said he doubted the mystery of their appearance will be solved.

"I don't think we'll be able top ferret it out," he said. But for history's sake, Scripps has collected specimens for preservation.

The band of 6- to 7-inch fish, which feed on plankton, was first spotted Monday by lifeguards, Hastings said. Hastings called the stragglers that remained today "bait balls."

Photos showed surfers paddling out for a view below, and video was posted on the Scripps website.

According to FishWatch.gov, maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries service, more than 20 species in the Engraulidae family are marketed as "anchovy," and Northern anchovy is the species found and commercially harvested off the West Coast.

Northern anchovy is harvested mainly for use as bait in other fisheries and sometimes processed into fish meal, "but it once supported a multimillion-dollar fishery as catch was sold for human consumption, for bait, and for reduction into meal, oil and soluble protein," according to the NOAA.

Northern anchovy has been fished off the West Coast since at least 1916, the agency says.

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