Peruvian Anchoveta – The Most Exploited Fish in the World

Peruvian anchoveta (Engraulis ringens) is a small forage fish which is a member of the Engraulidae (anchovy) family, related to the anchovies found in British waters. As they name suggests they are found mainly off the coast of Peru and also Chile. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations calls Peruvian anchoveta “the most heavily expoited fish species in the history of the world.”

Peruvian Anchoveta
Peruvian anchoveta is the most exploited fish in the world.

The immense number of Peruvian anchoveta which are caught mean that this species is vastly important to the fisheries and economies of the southeastrn Pacific, but there is also concern over the erratic fluctuations in the number of anchoveta which are present each year, and fears that this species is being fished beyond sustainable limits.

Biology and Commercial Value

Peruvian ancoveta are a small species of fish, seldom reaching more than 20cm in length or living for more than four years (however most are caught before they can reach anything approaching this size or age). They are filter feeders and consume planktonic organisms which are abundant in the waters of the south east Pacific Ocean. They are found in huge shoals towards the surface of the water, and often come close to land.

Peruvian anchoveta is highly commercially valuable, due to its high oil and protein content. While it is an edible fish and is tinned, frozen and sold fresh for human consumption the vast majority of commercially caught Peruvian anchoveta is used to create fishmeal – a product which is made by cooking and grinding down the fish to create a high-protein powder. This is then used as feed for livestock such as pigs or farmed fish species. The massive rise in fish farming across the world has led to ever increasing demand – and higher values – for fishmeal, and Peru’s anchoveta has made the nation the world’s number one fishmeal exporter by some distance.

Commercial Catches

After being ignored as a commercial fish in the years following World War Two Peruvian anchoveta began to be heavily exploited from the 1960s onwards. The year 1971 saw the highest catches of Peruvian anchoveta, with over 13 millon tons being caught in that year alone. However, since then the amount of Peruvian anchoveta which is caught on a commercial basis has fluctuated wildly, with both overfishing and natural environmental factors playing a part.

As the graph below shows the catches of Peruvian anchoveta declined sharply after the early 1970s peak. Why the reasons for this are not fully understood it is thought to be a combination of overfishing in the 1970s combined with the influence of El Nino. This is a complex series of climactic factors which take place every few years and see the warmer, nutrient-poor waters flood into the south Pacific, massively reducing the plankton in the water. This can have a devastating impact on anchoveta and dramatically reduce their food source and therefore their numbers.

Peruvian Anchoveta Catches C Epipelagic

However, as Peruvian anchoveta are a very fast-breeding fish which can reproduce at a very young age stocks can recover quickly, and by the early 1990s both stocks and catches increased again, only to be followed by another crash and recovery. Peruvian anchoveta are caught mainly by using purse seine nets, although mid-water trawling is also used. The average Peruvian anchoveta which is caught is thought to be around 8cm in size and around six months old.

Fears of Overfishing

Today Peruvian anchoveta numbers are showing signs of serious depletion which will cause another crash in stocks. However, there are concerns that this crash will not be followed by a recovery, as if the biomass of the species is reduced too low there will not be enough fish of breeding age to rebuild the stocks. In 2013 the stocks of Peruvian anchoveta were estimated to be at five million tons, less than half of what there were a decade previously, and significantly less than the early 1970s levels.

The consequences of permanent reduction in Peruvian anchoveta numbers would be serious. Fishing for anchoveta creates employment for tens of thousands of fishermen across Peru and Chile, while the secondary industries of transporting the fish and manufacturing and exporting the fishmeal support many more jobs, as do the related industries of boat building and repair and so on. A significant reduction in the numbers of Peruvian anchoveta would devastate these industries. Furthermore Peruvian anchoveta play a vital role in the food webs of the South Pacific Ocean. They are the main prey species for a range of larger predatory species and marine birds. Again a reduction in Peruvian anchoveta would have a catastrophic knock on effect for these species and the wider ecosystems of the Pacific.

The Future for Peruvian Anchoveta

The Peruvian authorities are taking some action to protect anchoveta stocks, although there is widespread concern that the measures are not robust enough. In 2013 it was announced that the Peruvian government had reduced the quotas for Peruvian anchoveta significantly, and put measures in place to ensure that more fish were used for human consumption and less for exported fishmeal, in order to ensure that the species was being used to feed the population of the country, rather than simply exported. However, these measures are not thought to go far enough. There is widespread illegal and unreported fishing of Peruvian anchoveta, while many of the laws are poorly thought through with damaging loopholes – fishing vessels under thirty-two tons were exempt from quotas brought in during 2008, for example, leading to an upsurge in the numbers of sub-30 ton fishing vessels targeting anchoveta in an unregulated manner.

Commercially Caught Peruvian Anchveta

The Peruvian and Chilean fishing industries continue to push for high quotas, blaming any reduction in stocks on El Nino and claiming that numbers will rebound when conditions improve. However, the long-term, and even medium-term, future of Peruvian anchoveta is uncertain. Even a species as famously resilient as anchoveta has limits to how much commercial exploitation it can take. Unless there are strong and effective measures to reduce the fishing intensity on this species it may not be around in meaningful numbers for much longer.