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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Peru Fishery Collapse?

Air Date: Week of

The last time Peru's fishing industry collapsed, 50,000 people lost their jobs. Jyl Hoyt reports from Peru on current reductions in fish catches and suggested efforts at preventing a repeat of the South American nation's recent history.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Anchovies. You may not like them on your pizza, but those tiny pungent little fish make up one of the world's most important fisheries. Millions of pounds are caught off the coast of Peru in South America, bringing in more than a billion dollars each year in foreign revenues. Twenty years ago, Peru's anchovy fishery abruptly crashed, the victim of over-fishing and environmental conditions. Similar fishery collapses have followed around the world, most recently in Canada and New England. Over time, Peru's anchovy population came back, but today many worry that history is repeating itself. Jyl Hoyt reports.

(Milling of people)

HOYT: Local residents often call Chimbote, a northern port along Peru's 1,500 mile Pacific shoreline, the Anchovy Capitol of the World. For thousands of years Indians caught the tiny silver fish in cold ocean currents that run 20 miles offshore. Their protein-rich diet contributed to a prosperity whose heritage is still visible today. In the 1950s a modern fishing industry began here. Juan Pacherrez Valverde, a labor organizer for Peru's Fishermen's Syndicate, looks at fishing boats of all shapes and sizes in Chimbote Bay. He's seen a lot of changes in his 35 years here.

VALVERDE: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: When I first came to Chimbote from my home town, the boats were tiny, between 30 and 80 tons. But now they weigh 300 and even 400 tons. And they're much better equipped. They have much bigger nets and electronics. Radar, machines to take soundings, stronger radars, and boat motors are so powerful they can zoom from one fishing site to the next.

(Ocean tides)

HOYT: A larger fleet equipped with the latest technology means Peruvians can capture more and more fish. That same high tech advancement shows up in seaports around the world, pushing fish stocks to or past their limit. Seagulls and pelicans swoop over fishermen as they unload mounds of anchovies from their grimy, brightly painted boats. Most of the catch will be ground into fish meal, then exported and used as animal feed. Peru's fish meal industry is now the second most important economy in the country. Peruvian fishermen caught 11 million tons of anchovies in 1994. The government and the private sector have invested heavily in Peru's fishery, so much so that now the fleet can bring in 4 times as much fish as the government recommends. There is strong pressure to make good on these investments, and that worries fisherman David Bravo.

BRAVO: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: They're building all these new plants, all these new ships. That means now they have a lot of financial obligations to pay off all their new investments. It's obvious. In the future they'll have beautiful plants, marvelous boats, and not one single fish left.

HOYT: It's happened before. Over-fishing was one of the culprits in Peru's 1973-74 anchovy collapse, one of the worst in the world because of the number of fish lost. Almost overnight, 50,000 Peruvians lost their jobs.

(People mulling, machinery)

HOYT: Peru's effort to prevent a repeat of that anchovy collapse is embodied in a single research vessel. Today, oceanographers ride a motorboat out to the scientific ship. They plan to leave the next day on a biannual two-month cruise up and down Peru's coast.

(Man speaks in Spanish as the boat is prepared)

HOYT: Scientists test for nutrients and temperature and try to determine fish populations. They also hope to predict the arrival of El Niño, a warm Pacific current that pushes anchovies so far out to sea oceanographers don't know where they go.

(Bird calls)

HOYT: El Niño comes and goes every few years and played a major role in the 1973-74 anchovy collapse. Peruvian environmentalist Antonio Bernales Alvarado says being able to understand and predict El Niño is crucial.

ALVARADO: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: El Niño is a phenomenon that will always happen. So we have to plan and organize for it. Not only for fish, but for all life in the coastal zone.

HOYT: For example, Mr. Bernales says the health of Peru's anchovy fishery is directly tied to the health of its export fertilizer business, once one of the most profitable in the world. Sea birds feed on anchovies. They leave droppings on rock islands. And those droppings are eventually harvested and used as fertilizer.

ALVARADO: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: But during the El Niño phenomenon that started in the 70s, not only did the fish industry fall, the bird population did, too. Neither the birds nor the fertilizer economy they produced have recovered.

HOYT: And some observers worry El Niño will become more unpredictable due to human induced changes in the global climate. The Peruvian government says it understands that the ebb and flow of El Niño makes the anchovy fishery even more vulnerable to the dangers of over-fishing. Chief of Peru's Institute of the Sea, Jorge Zununaga says the country is doing what is necessary to protect the resource by strongly enforcing annual fishing seasons to protect juvenile and spawning fish.

ZUNUNAGA: (Speaks in Spanish) TRANSLATOR: We place a lot of importance on protecting fish that haven't reached maturity. By doing this we are ensuring the fish population will reproduce itself. That's important for a sustainable resource.

HOYT: But critics say that's not anywhere near enough to protect Peru's fishery. World Bank fisheries advisor Eduardo Loayza, himself a Peruvian, says without limiting the number of permits or the number of boats, fishing seasons can do little to relieve pressure.

LOAYZA: It's like a car race or anything similar. You, the fishing season comes up and everybody runs to see who catches first. And so it's kind of a struggle to who gets the fish first, and you've got to get it before the others do. So that turns the whole thing into a messy situation which is taking the fishery nowhere.

HOYT: Critics also charge that the government does little to address problems like bycatch, in which ships haul in more than their allotment and throw back extra fish, dead. Or illegal catch, in which ships haul in too many fish and keep them anyway. Instead of defined fishing seasons, Loayza suggests Peru sell fishing companies long-term rights to certain percentages of each year's catch. He says this would encourage them to take less in the short term, so there would still be fish to catch in the future. Others say the government should force boats to install refrigeration. Now, only 2% of Peru's fleet has coolers. That means up to one quarter of the catch rots before it's processed. Peruvian environmentalist Antonio Bernales Alvarado also wants Peru to charge tariffs on the size of fishing boats and the power of their motors.

ALVARADO: (Speaks in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: If there is not adequate regulation, the tendency to overfish in Peru's sea will continue. This is a phenomenon that not only happens in Peru, it has occurred all over the world. The drama is that Peru knows this is happening to almost all the fisheries on the planet. Yet Peru has not learned any lessons from them on how to prevent that from happening here.

(The sea shore: birds, waves)

HOYT: Peru's government insists the fishing industry is not in danger. But Mr. Bernales and other independent observers think Peru's anchovies are being overfished. They fear if government doesn't start better managing the fishery, they could eventually see a permanent bust, like the North Sea herring population that collapsed in the 1940s and still hasn't returned. For Living on Earth, I'm Jyl Hoyt.



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