In northern Peru, the start of summer typically sends commercial fishing vessels racing out to sea to net Peruvian anchovies, which make up the world’s largest single-species fishery. But the fleet remains docked after a recent government survey revealed that anchovy populations are in dire shape after a one-two hit from El Niño and overfishing.
In May, the Marine Institute of Peru (IMARPE) found that the stocks of Peruvian anchovy, also known as anchoveta, stood at 4.42 million metric tons — 46 percent lower than the summer average over the last 22 years. Of this, only 3.2 million metric tons were adult fish, well below the 5 million ton threshold at which IMARPE recommends industrial fishing should stop. Now, scientists are urging officials to learn from 2015’s mistakes, when the government permitted a second fishing season despite evidence that anchoveta had crashed.
A second survey is currently underway. Results are expected on June 20, and will be used to determine when and whether 2016’s first fishing season can begin, and how much fish can be caught.
“Last year, politicians ignored repeated warnings that we needed to act with caution when it comes to El Niño and other weather abnormalities,” said Juan Carlos Riveros, the scientific director of Oceana Peru. “The decision to have a second assessment is a welcome one. We hope that IMARPE will take into account the best available science and the sustainability of this resource when setting quotas for this season.”
Bad weather and baby fish
As many scientists, fishers and activists feared, the massive El Niño that began in 2015 —officially one of the strongest on record — has continued to wreak havoc on anchoveta.
The unusual ocean conditions that come with this weather cycle have dramatically decreased food availability for anchoveta. Smaller, skinnier anchovies mean that fishmeal and fish oil manufacturers need more individual fish to produce the same volume of product. These industries are the main source of income for the anchoveta fishery — 98 percent of the catch is “reduced” into oil and meal, rather than processed for direct human consumption.
In addition, the unusually warm waters that come with El Niño have driven anchoveta to crowd into the few remaining cold patches of the ocean, making them easier targets for fishers.
But the longest-term impact of El Niño has been the disproportionate number of juvenile fish. Sexually immature fish below the minimum legal catch size of 12 centimeters (4.7 inches) currently make up 70 percent of the population.
A big percentage of juvenile fish is both a blessing and a curse. While it spells out plentiful adult anchoveta in the future, it also means that fishing activity in the near-term can do excessive harm to the long-term sustainability of the fishery.
The future of fishing
Last October, an initial IMARPE survey found that anchoveta had sunk to 3.38 million metric tons. A second assessment, performed with the participation of the industrial fleet and using a new methodology, put the weight at 6.8 million metric tons. Despite questions about the accuracy of the new survey methods, the Ministry of Production opened the second fishing season on November 17.
The second season, which ran from November 2015 to January 2016, dealt a major blow to anchoveta. Legally, only 10 percent of industrial catches can consist of juvenile fish. By December that number stood at 16 percent, and by January it had jumped to 37 percent.
El Niño is predicted to become more frequent and intense as the Earth’s climate heats up. Peru’s marine ecosystem, one of the most productive in the world, is the result of a wind-driven phenomenon that brings cold, nutrient-rich water up to the sea’s surface. El Niño conditions weaken the winds that drive this “upwelling” of ocean water.
“Peru can make informed and serious management decisions,” Riveros said. “Or it can act blindly, guided only by economic figures without much consideration for the future of fishing in our country.”
Oceana Peru advocates for government transparency on fisheries policy and for bold, science-based management strategies. Learn more about Oceana Peru’s work here.