The Mystery of the 2017 Peruvian Anchovy Harvest

Last January Peru surprised the world, or at least the part focused on aquaculture, when it shut down its second anchovy season with more than half the quota unharvested. This was done after IMARPE, Peru’s ocean resources research organization, determined the percentage of juvenile anchovies in the take was excessively high and that continuing to harvest so many immature fish posed a threat to the long-term health of the fisheries. This is the first time a blanket closure of this type has ever occurred.

So why does this matter? Fishmeal is the most important feed ingredient in the aquaculture industry and Peruvian anchoveta is the source for roughly 30% of the world’s supply. It’s no exaggeration to say without anchovies from Peru we wouldn’t see those beautiful displays of salmon, rainbow trout, and other fish we’ve come to love at our supermarket seafood counters. The effect of the Peruvian closure was felt almost immediately in the aquafeed markets when the cost of fishmeal increased by a third and fish oil soared by 40%.

Given this background, it’s no surprise there was a lot concern in the aquaculture community about the state of Peru’s anchovy biomass going into the 2018 fishing season. Fortunately, the population seems to have returned to normal distribution thanks to sound management practices, this year’s harvest appears to be proceeding well, and fishmeal prices have come down. Crisis averted for now, but does this mean all is right and there is nothing to worry about? Not necessarily. A few thoughts…

First, Peruvian fishing authorities should be commended for taking tough and speedy actions to protect their anchovy resource. They’ve put in place a well-developed system for monitoring the health of the pelagic fish harvest, and when they recognized there were problems, they had the courage to act swiftly. Many talk about the importance of sustainable fishing but too often when a choice has to be made between short-term economic pain and long-term environmental health, the wrong option is selected. So, hats off to Peru for having the courage to make the right decision.

Second, what exactly happened to the anchovy population last year? Why did the juvenile population suddenly exceed the 10% threshold used to halt the harvest? Was it because the older anchovies had been overfished? Did some unknown disease cause a massive die-off? Was it a result of weather or climate events? Or maybe a combination of all these factors? The short answer is ‘we simply do not know’ and that should be a continued cause for worry. It’s clear something is going on with the anchovy population and whatever it is could happen again. There have been other issues in the general region, including changes in temperature and algal blooms that could have been the cause. We simply do not know, so to keep aquaculture thriving, industry leaders need to support alternatives to fishmeal that are sustainable and scalable.

A short postscript: The current anchovy harvest season is now essentially complete. It has been a good harvest and virtually the entire catch has been sold in the market. Fun fact: Not one kilo of fishmeal remains unsold from one season to the next. There are no carryovers. Ever. Off the top of my head, I really can’t think of another commodity market that behaves like this. Not corn, wheat, sugar, oil, etc. Very interesting - and a clear indication of a highly vulnerable market. Something needs to change.

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