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The venerable anchovy

This week I was interviewed for The Food Programme which airs on radio in the UK. Its subject was the anchovy, a marine fish humble in size but prolific in life. Most of us are familiar with anchovies only as dark, finger-sized fillets in olive oil. Their piquant flavour gives zest to hundreds of dishes from pizza to stuffed peppers to lamb chops. What is less well known is that their popularity as a cooking ingredient extends back thousands of years. Anchovies have been caught in commercial quantities in Europe since antiquity. Archaeologists have, for example, found the remains of fish salting vats in Black Sea coastal settlements that date from the 2nd and 3rd Centuries AD. Layers of bones at the bottom of show they were used for processing anchovies and other small-bodied fish. Salted anchovies, probably preserved in oil much as they are today, were traded over long distances, reaching as far afield as England. Anchovies were used to make garum, a highly popular fish sauce in ancient Rome. This was made up of the macerated guts of anchovies and other fish, fermented in brine and mixed with wine, vinegar, pepper or water. Apparently, the process was so offensive that garum factories were forbidden from built up areas. The deep history of culinary use perhaps explains our fondness for anchovy today. Anchovy paste has been spread on toast for hundreds of years and the fish is a key ingredient of Worcestershire sauce, a condiment that dates to the early 19th century. There are nearly 140 species of anchovies worldwide. Most live close to coasts and estuaries in warm temperate waters, like those of California, the Mediterranean, Japan, South Africa and Peru. Few species reach more than 6 inches (15cm) long. But what they lack in size they more than compensate for in production. Anchovies live fast and die young, first spawning at about a year old and rarely living beyond four. They eat plankton and with their prodigious powers of increase prosper when plankton blooms. Five to ten percent of world fish catches are anchovies, most of which come from highly productive places like Peru where nutrient rich water upwells from the depths. Despite their abundance, we don't eat that many, at least directly. The vast majority are converted to fishmeal and fed to hogs, chickens and fish and prawns raised in aquaculture facilities. Others are used as bait for species like tuna. When environmental conditions are right it is almost impossible to overfish such productive species, which is why anchovies are listed as an excellent choice in most ethical seafood guides. But when conditions are bad things can go wrong quickly. During good times fishing boats pile in to the industry as there is plenty for all. But in bad times this excess fishing capacity can hit stocks hard. Intense El Nino conditions in Peru in 1972 precipitated the collapse of the world's largest fishery. By the 1980s, the fishery recovered, but landings continue to fluctuate widely. In Europe's Cantabrian Sea off the coasts of France and Spain, one of the most ancient fisheries for anchovy has been closed since 2006. There is a lot of waiting in fishing. Nobody knows how long people will have to wait there for the next anchovy boom. ———- Callum Roberts is Professor of Marine Conservation at the University of York in England and the author of The Unnatural History of the Sea. Click here to visit his website.