How our growing appetite for salmon is devastating coastal communities in Peru

The coast of Peru is being blighted by a fishmeal industry that's sprung up to satisfy the West’s voracious appetite for salmon – now marine life, human health and whole ecosystems are paying the price. Andrew Wasley and Jim Wickens report

It is a life of poverty and filth. Standing above the tangle of rusting metal pipes and concrete-rimmed pools that lead into the ocean, Segundo Vorges and Luis Diaz explain how they scratch a living here in Chimbote harbour, Peru. They are part of a twilight community of ‘pipe people’ who survive by reclaiming waste discharged from nearby fishmeal production plants.

When operational, the pipes carry effluent – an unsavoury mixture of fish bodies, scales and fat – into the pools and the sea. Vorges and Diaz skim off the useful waste, particularly the fat, before shovelling it into containers. Some is turned into pellets used for cooking and sold at nearby markets. Whole families, including children, are involved in this dirty enterprise, earning $3 per day.

Despite some nasty-looking substances festering in the pools, the ‘pipe people’ maintain they are unconcerned about potential risks – unlike the environmentalists, who claim such effluent contaminates the sea. ‘Whatever the job is, it’s work,’ says Vorges. ‘We need to bring money to the table.’

This shocking scene is a million miles from the succulent pink salmon fish-steaks on sale across the western world. But the two are inextricably linked: much of the fishmeal and oil produced in Peru from anchovy fish stocks is the principal ingredient of feed used in salmon farming.

Aquaculture has long been targeted by pressure groups concerned at its apparent unsustainability and ecological footprint. Campaigners in Peru and Chile are now claiming that there are serious environmental and social costs, however – including pollution and health problems, overfishing, and impacts on ecosystems and wildlife – arising from production of fishmeal and fish oil. And the Ecologist has learned that at least one major supplier of farmed salmon to UK supermarkets and wholesalers has partnered with a feed company procuring significant volumes of controversial Peruvian fishmeal.

Overfishing and illness

Fishmeal is a protein-rich flour produced by cooking, drying and milling raw fish and trimmings. Fish oil is a byproduct of fishmeal processing. Both are largely derived from oily fish including anchovies, herrings and sardines. High nutritional values – both contain omega-3 fatty acids, beneficial both to humans and animals – has led to massive demand from the aquaculture industry.

Globally, the sector is worth almost $2.5 billion, with 400 plants producing approximately six million tonnes of fish flour and one million tonnes of fish oil annually. Principal fisheries supplying producers of meal and oil are situated in European waters and in the Pacific bordering Peru and Chile. Peru is the world’s leading exporter, supplying 28 per cent of the UK’s fishmeal in 2007.

After processing, meal and oil is usually exported for mixing with binders, such as soya, for output as feed pellets. Salmon are carnivorous and require large amounts of feed: environmentalists estimate 4kg of wild caught fish are required to produce 1kg of farmed fish, fuelling claims that aquaculture is not sustainable.

Peru’s Pacific waters contain a vital fishery and one of the world’s most biologically productive coastal ‘upwelling’ ecosystems. Coastal ‘upwelling’ occurs when deep oceanic currents collide with sharp costal shelves and force nutrient-rich cool water to the surface. The nutrients support the proliferation of phytoplankton, which in turn provide sustenance for enormous schools of anchovy and other marine animals.

In Chimbote, 40 fishmeal plants process anchovies caught by the city’s fishing fleets, making it one of the world’s most important fishmeal hubs – and a flashpoint for associated conflicts.

When we visited one heavily afflicted community – known as April 15th – more than a dozen women and children gathered in the dusty, unpaved street to vent their anger at the fishmeal plants. They claim the plants that loom over their houses are responsible for asthma, bronchial and skin problems, particularly in children.

‘We know the factories are responsible for these [problems], because when it operates the illnesses gets worse,’ says one young woman, holding her young child. ‘When the smoke comes it gets so bad we need a mask.’ Another says when the plants are operating the pollution is so thick you cannot physically remain on the street.

Footage shot by Chimbote residents, and seen by the Ecologist, graphically illustrates typical conditions when fishmeal plants are operational: billowing black smoke drifts through the streets, obscuring vision and choking passers-by. It looks like the aftermath of a bomb or a major fire.

Although fishmeal production is now restricted to fixed periods – corresponding with reduced fishing seasons – community members say the industry continues to make their lives a misery. Local people also claim buffer zones designed to separate processing plants from dwellings are being disregarded, and that at least one house is no longer habitable because of the pollution.

‘These people deserve more than to be subjected to this,’ says Maria Elena Foronda Farro of NGO Natura, which is campaigning to resolve the problems associated with fishmeal production. ‘It’s even worse because this fishmeal is being processed for salmon farmed and consumed abroad.’

The activists – and medical professionals – claim they have witnessed first-hand the disturbing pattern of health problems connected to the fishmeal sector.

Dr Ramon de la Cruz, dean of Chimbote’s Colegio Medico del Consejo Regional XIX, told the Ecologist: ‘All these respiratory problems are caused by contamination from the fishing industry in Chimbote, which is a very big focal point for contamination’. Although acknowledging that there are other causes of contamination – including the steel industry and cars – he says the fishmeal industry has been particularly to blame.

Cruz states that there is a direct correlation between the onset of fishmeal production and illness in children in Chimbote: ‘As the fishing season increases, the production of fishmeal begins, and this immediately and fundamentally accentuates in the infantile population the occurrences of asthma’.

Pupils at a Chimbote school afflicted by the industry also complain of health problems and environmental damage. ‘It causes fungal growths, breathlessness, we cannot breath,’ says one boy. Another says: ‘As well as make us sick it changes the colour of the ocean. We used to play years back, but now it’s polluted there is nowhere to play’.

During a tour of a row of dilapidated classrooms, teacher Yolanda Lara Cortez claims the industry has proved disruptive and costly. ‘We had to build walls to keep [smoke] out,’ she says. ‘We used to hold classes here, but the smoke, noise and pollution was so bad we can no longer use them.’ Other schools have suffered too, according to Cortez, with as many as 5,000 pupils affected by the pollution.

Down on the shoreline, Romolo Loayza Aguila, a biologist from the city’s Universidad Nacional del Santa, says that research shows how untreated effluents from fishmeal plants are contributing to serious contamination of the Bay of Ferrol off Chimbote’s coast. He claims the impacts of the waste on the bay’s biodiversity ‘have been dramatic’, as the area was ‘rich in species and also in biomass’.

According to ecological group Mundo Azul, the Bay of Ferrol is among the most polluted marine areas of the country, largely due to contamination by the fishmeal industry. ‘The plants are discharging protein, fat and oil into the bay’s water, as well as contaminated marine water used during the process of pumping the fish from the ship’s hull to the processing plant,’ the group states.

It claims that this, combined with contaminants deposited by air pollution, raw sewage and discharge from the steel industry, has led to the accumulation of a toxic layer – up to a metre thick – of undecomposed, organic material on the sea bed, creating a marine ‘dead zone’.

Dead zones are areas where algae blooms, and, although they can occur naturally, are often triggered by nutrients from fertiliser run-off, sewage, animal and industrial wastes, and atmospheric deposition from the burning of fossil fuels, removing oxygen from the water. Low levels of oxygen make it difficult for fish and other marine creatures, as well as important habitats such as sea-grass beds, to survive. The UN recently warned that such areas can threaten fish stocks.

Coast to contaminated coast

Other parts of Peru’s coastline have also been contaminated by waste from the fishmeal industry – fishermen believe such pollution has led to a reduction in artisanal fish catches, but they also blame the activities of industrial anchovy fleets.

Fishing chiefs and campaigners say the volume of anchovy taken for fishmeal negatively impacts the ocean’s wider food chain, and thus the availability of other, previously plentiful species fished for human consumption. They also claim spawning grounds are damaged by industrial fishing.

‘Fish is the basic food in Peru, but now there is not enough for local people,’ says Manuel Montesa Arroyo, a spokesman for Chimbote’s artisanal fishermen. ‘We catch less because there are more fleets. There is [now] more deprivation as we catch less.’

Arroyo says that although laws exist to prevent industrial fishing within a five-mile zone of the coast – to protect artisanal food resources – enforcement is weak and breaches frequent. In 2006, local media reportedly filmed as many as 50 industrial vessels fishing just metres off the beach. According to eyewitnesses, harbour authorities took no action ‘because they had no fuel’.

Javier Castro, who represents the industrial fishing industry in Chimbote, admits that the sector was ‘anarchic’ and that frequent breaches of the law occur, with regular instances of fishing vessels manipulating satellite positioning technology to mask their positions when operating inside exclusion zones or closed seasons.

Campaigners cite official research as evidence of the precarious status of anchovy stocks in the South East Pacific: the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is quoted after characterising the Peruvian anchovy fishery as ‘fully fished’ – meaning it has been exploited to the maximum safe biological limit. And in 2006, the FAO noted two main stocks of anchovy in the South East Pacific are ‘fully exploited and overexploited’.

The Peruvian Institute of Fisheries Research – IMARPE – which advises the authorities on fishing policies and practice, is also cited for reportedly stating that ‘anchovy biomass is down, distribution scattered and anomalous distribution of juveniles due to dynamic environmental conditions’.

But the fishmeal industry maintains that anchovy stocks are carefully monitored and industrial fleets controlled through vigorous enforcement. The International Fishmeal and Fish Oil Organisation (IFFO) states that Peruvian anchovy fishing is subjected to ‘comprehensive management controls to protect the stock from overfishing’. It says the Peruvian government adopts a ‘precautionary approach’ to regulating catches, with controls including closed seasons, net-size restrictions, vessel licensing, catch quotas and restricted fishing areas.

The IFFO also points to the satellite tracking system – referred to by fishing chiefs – as further evidence of the framework in place to prevent overfishing, as well as the existence of strict codes of conduct for industrial fishing vessels. IFFO head Jonathan Shepherd says that Peru is an ‘excellent example of a country which heeded earlier warnings on overfishing, conducted extensive research and introduced controls and third-party surveillance’.

Feed companies procuring Peruvian fishmeal also claim the country’s anchovy stocks are managed sustainably. Skretting – a subsidiary of Nutreco – which in the first half of 2007 saw 47 per cent of its fishmeal globally made from Peruvian anchovy, told the Ecologist ‘all [our] suppliers of marine products must document that fish used to produce fishmeal and oil have been responsibly sourced, without depleting fish stocks or damaging the wider marine environment’.

Peruvian anchovy was used in almost 50 per cent of the feed Skretting supplied to the UK in 2007, mostly to salmon farms. The company recently signed a contract with Marine Harvest, a major salmon producer, to supply 70 per cent of its feed. Marine Harvest, with farms in Scotland and elsewhere, has supplied salmon to British supermarkets Morrisons and Sainsbury’s, and seafood wholesaler Young’s, which has in turn sold salmon to virtually all major UK retailers, including Asda, Tesco and Somerfield.

While there is no suggestion that any of these companies is directly involved in bad practice or wrongdoing, the sourcing of fishmeal from Peru will concern consumers and raise questions over sourcing policies.

Marine Harvest stated: ‘The only way we can maximise the value for our shareholders is to ensure that we operate on a sustainable basis. This is why Marine Harvest takes all aspects related to sustainability very seriously… Marine Harvest’s feed suppliers have programmes for sustainability including routines related to the purchase of sustainable raw materials’.

Young’s says its farmed salmon is a ‘sustainable, consistent and high-quality fresh fish raw material’, and an alternative to wild caught fish. The company claims the marine ingredients in the feed used by its suppliers are sourced only from ‘managed fisheries’.

Maria Farro acknowledges some fishmeal processors are taking steps to reduce the negative impacts of their operations, after Natura established initiatives – involving all stakeholders – to clean up the industry. ‘Six or seven are leading the way, implementing better, less polluting and less wasteful practices,’ she says, ‘but plenty of others have so far refused to enter into dialogue.’

Ecosystem crash

Natura argues that ultimately, however, fishmeal production primarily to feed salmon and other farm animals can never be truly sustainable, as long as there are ‘human mouths to feed’ – especially as Peru has experienced problems with malnutrition.

Yards away from Chimbote’s bustling port, our investigation discovered another, hidden victim of the fishmeal industry. Lying on the rubbish-strewn beach are the carcasses of six sea lions – a protected species – rotting in the sunshine. The animals are reportedly increasingly being killed by fishermen who see them as competitors for dwindling fish resources.

Seabird colonies too are reported to be under threat because of excessive anchovy fishing to supply the fishmeal industry. Mundo Azul claims that a noticeable reduction in guano – seabird excrement, traditionally harvested for use as a fertiliser – on a series of rocky islands near the coastal town of Pucusana is hard evidence of a significantly reduced population of seabirds, including Guanay cormorants, the Peruvian pelican and the Peruvian booby.

Biologists have recently stated that the number of such birds in the region totals some four million, a massive decrease of a population that once stood at more than 60 million. Although other factors contribute to the problem, biologists have warned that, unless overfishing in the region is curtailed, the ‘guano’ birds could die off by 2030 as their fish sources dwindle.

The salmon rush

A thousand miles south of Chimbote, the windswept mountains of Patagonia drop steeply into the stormy ocean that surrounds this region of Chile. This is salmon farming country, and the hub of Chile’s multibilliondollar aquaculture industry, soon to outgrow Norway’s as the world’s biggest. It is estimated that 40 per cent of all salmon eaten in the USA is produced here, as is much of the frozen salmon supplied to the UK and EU.

Salmon-cage manufacturers, net defouling factories, feed-pipe manufacturers and industrial boat-builders line the highways around the regional capital Puerto Montt. It is an economy underpinned and fuelled by cheap fish feed, and the controversial anchovy fisheries and soya plantations of Latin America that supply it. Multinationals – including Marine Harvest and Skretting – have migrated here to profit from the salmon rush.

The Ecologist visited the Mapuche community of Pepiukelen, located in Pargua, just in front of the crossing passage to the island of Chiloé, where many salmon farms are based. Feed companies were quick to buy up strategically valuable land here. For the Pepiukelen, however, the growth of feed production plants in the area has brought only hardship.

‘We used to have 30 pigs running free in the forest here, but now the land is so restricted we can farm only one,’ says lonko (chief) Manuel Vera Millaquén. ‘Today the water in our river is so polluted that the farm animals die, but when we complain to the feed companies, they simply laugh.’

Forced from the land, today only 30 Mapuche remain, and those that do must seek work in the feed plants that have grown on their doorstep, and endure the stench of the fumes from the plants every day. On the seashore, the tribal meeting area stands empty. A traditional place for teaching and ceremony, today it is hemmed in by the barbed wire and brimming towers of the feed plants all around. ‘People are losing their traditions. It’s like a new kind of slavery,’ says Millaquén.

Driving south, snow-clad peaks rising out of the ocean create the image of a wild land that seems – on the surface – virtually untouched by human hand. But every bay is dotted with salmon cages and feed stations and the supply vessels that support them. Vast floating net structures, some stretching as deep as 80m, are interlinked with tangled networks of feed pipes that spew feed pellets into the frothy mass of factory-farmed fish inside each cage.

Under the surface, faeces and feed crumbs create what scientists claim are virtual marine deserts on the sea bed. Commercial divers in Chile told the Ecologist, on condition of anonymity, that the corpses of sea lions ‘can be found under every farm here’, apparently shot for trying to ‘steal’ the salmon.

Disturbingly, these corpses are joined at times by those of humans. An average of 1.5 divers die every month in Chile carrying out routine work on the salmon farms, according to diving unions. Poorly trained, overworked and underpaid, the salmon farmworker mortality rates in Chile are higher than anywhere else in the world.

For John Volpe, professor of ecology at the University of Victoria, Australia, such examples are by no means isolated. ‘Salmon is not cheap,’ he says. ‘We’ve created a way for it to be cheap for the consumer by shifting the cost to ecosystems and social communities, who are being degraded in the name of cheap salmon.’

Critics in Chile claim that free trade agreements have created a system whereby producer countries bear the hidden costs of the feed and farming processes used to grow cheap salmon sold in the west. ‘The salmon we produce is eaten by the mouths of people in the USA and Europe, but the asshole is here in Latin America,’ says Jean Carlos Cardenas of Ecoceanos. ‘The true cost of the cheap salmon you eat is being paid with the blood of our people and the health of our oceans.’

Useful links
See our Seven easy tips to sustainable fish here
Read the industry's responses here

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