Millions of anchovies -- a protected species in the EU -- died in northern Spain after an unexplained mass beaching, officials said on Friday.
The fish, all juveniles, were found stranded along large stretches of Colunga beach, 60km east of the port city of Gijon, a normally pristine seaside landscape in the province of Asturias.
Anchovies, known as "bocartes" in northern Spain and considered a culinary delicacy, cannot be fished along northern Spanish and French coasts due to an EU protection order meant to allow fish stocks to recover from "absolute decline," said Luis Laria, chief coordinator of a marine protection unit working with the government.
"It's a bit of a disaster," Laria said. "We can't fish them because they're so rare, and now they've killed themselves."
"More than 3 tonnes have been found so far, and our main -- untested -- hypothesis at the moment is that they tried to flee from predators and accidentally beached," Laria said. Had the fish grown to maturity, they would have represented more than 100 tonnes, he said.
Experts studied the corpses and found no evidence of toxic chemicals that could have caused the beaching.
"The likelihood is that a shoal tried to swim away from hungry dolphins or tuna," Laria said.
High temperatures off Colunga could also have caused the fish to become disoriented, Laria said, noting the water there was measured at 25?C-26.5?C, "which is very high."
The EU called its moratorium on fishing anchovies two months ago, after restricting fishing of the species for two years. Anchovies from the nutrient-rich waters off the northern Spanish coast are considered the most flavorful and so are the most valued, Laria said.
An Environment Ministry spokesman said that anchovy was considered a "species susceptible to extinction" and was being monitored by scientists.