Life in the sea life is beautiful, diverse, and colorful. It’s also critical to humans: nearly a quarter of the protein that feeds the world’s seven billion people comes from the ocean. In all that sea life, there’s a short list of critters that act as a linchpin that makes a lot of other life possible. Ecologists call them “keystone species” because their presence or absence has a disproportionate effect on all the life around them. Remove them and the whole ecosystem function shifts or falls apart. Most of them aren’t glamorous; but we should appreciate them regardless.
Most of us think of anchovies as the overly salty things that strange people put on pizza and salads. When not on your plate, anchovies are actually 117 different species of “small fish”. Their marginal status as food to humans overlooks its critical place in the ocean food web. Anywhere in the northern Pacific where there’s a big gathering of sea lions, whales, tuna, or salmon, chances are there’s a school of anchovy just out of sight below. They’re also the primary food source for yellowtail, rockfish, and halibut. And while you’re appreciating anchovy for their invisible but critical role in the food web, give the same appreciation to their forage fish cousins, herring and sardines.