El Niño effect and biodiversity on the shores of Peru – The Anchovy case
Thanks to the Humboldt Current also known as the Peruvian Current the waters adjacent to the Peruvian coast is one the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet. This 200 nautical mile area is a coastal upwelling which is characterized for its deep and cool waters where phytoplankton thrives. Phytoplankton is at the bottom of the food chain and serves as nourishment for zooplankton and small fish including the anchovy better known as anchoveta which in turn feeds predatory fish, mammals and guano producing birds. This system provides an abundance of food that leads to one of the most biodiverse areas on earth.
Guano birds diving for anchovies
Anchovies thrive in the cool waters off the shores of Peru. Anchovies are grounded and converted into fish meal to feed livestock and farmed fish. Peru is the largest producer and exporter of anchovy it exports 8 to 10 million tons a year. The harvesting, processing and exportation of fish meal is a major industry that provides employment to a large amount of people.
Production of fishmeal peaked at 12 million tons in the 1970s before the industry collapsed. Overfishing and changes in weather patterns brought by El Niño depleted the stock of anchovies and other fish that thrive in cold waters which in turn affected the guano industry. El Niño is an irregular weather pattern that brings warmer surface temperature, consequently the temperature of the ocean rises by as much as 3C proving too warm for phytoplankton to survive. Anchovies would migrate to lower waters where temperature is lower and too deep to access by fishing vessels. Guano birds migrate where food is available. However, other species of shellfish and fish such as marlin and tuna no commonly available migrated to the warm waters off the coast of Peru.
The industry has learned the consequences of overfishing. Now the government of Peru is trying to make better use of its resources by moving towards an ecosystem based management and setting a maximum level of sustainable harvest. It has introduced a quota making sure that 5 million tones of anchovies are left at sea every year.
The fishing industry has realized that selling the fish for human consumption is more profitable than selling it as food for animals. China is the largest market for Peru’s fish meal and the second largest market is Chile. These two markets are trying to get as much fishmeal to feed its ever growing animal and fish farms. Even though the industry is recovering and is economically viable a deeper moral issue has arisen, anchovies provide protein needed by a country where almost half of its population lives under critical poverty and 25% of children are malnourished. The government is promoting anchovies for food in its food security programs and private enterprises are starting to sell canned anchovies canned like sardines. Human consumption has increased from 10,000 tonnes in 2006 to 190,0000 tonnes in 2010.
Interesting facts about Peru’s rich biodiversity.
Peru is home to more than 500 species of mammals, of which 70 are endemic and close to 100 are threatened, vulnerable or endangered.
The Amazon river is home to many species of animals and many of them are in danger of extinction.
The cold water of the Pacific Ocean brought by the Humboldt current, makes its water rich in plankton which supports a rich variety of fish and marine animals as well as birds who feed from the fish