A load of fresh fish near Pisco, Peru.
Credit: Photo Stock
Legal Shortcuts Trap the Peruvian Anchovy
By Milagros Salazar
A legal shortcut is being used to obtain permits to fish for Peruvian anchovy -- at unsustainable levels.
LIMA, Dec 20 (Tierramérica).- Exports of fishmeal made from Peruvian anchoveta, or anchovy (Engraulis ringens), is so lucrative that fishers have sought -- and found -- legal shortcuts to obtain permits that would have been impossible through formal channels. This practice is exhausting even the contingency stock that the government had set aside.
Peru is the world's leading exporter of fishmeal. And the anchovy is the main fish species caught for this purpose.
Rich in protein and essential amino acids, the Peruvian anchoveta is the preferred ingredient for this prized fishmeal in China, Germany, Japan and other markets.
Each year, the government authorizes six million tons of anchoveta to be caught for industrial purposes. If additional permits are issued, it could endanger the sustainability of this resource, which is already fully exploited and thus requires regulation, explained Minister of Production Jorge Villasante.
To maintain some flexibility to absorb exceptional situations, like transfers or sales of fishing vessels, or requests for fleet expansion, the authorities reserve 2.2 percent of the total fishing quota in the two yearly fishing seasons in an anchovy "contingency stock."
Since 2006, the Ministry of Production received court notifications -- which it believes are "irregular" -- ordering it to issue fishing permits to 64 companies or individuals.
In none of these cases did the applicants complete the process established by the law for the permits. They instead took a legal shortcut, filing appeals or other recourses that allowed them to obtain legal stays, in record time, exempting them from the usual administrative requirements and forcing the Ministry to issue the permits.
"Because they know they can't get authorization through regular administrative channels, they get a judge and come up with a mechanism to give orders to the Ministry," Villasante told Tierramérica.
Based on the storage capacity of the vessels obtaining allegedly "irregular" permits, the authorities estimate that more than 43,000 additional tons of anchoveta were caught in 2009 and early 2010, depleting the contingency fund. Now just 0.77 percent remains, to be held exclusively to compensate for increases in fishing fleets.
The fishing quota per vessel was set in 2008, and now permit transfers are only allowed when the boats change ownership, and then only if all other requirements are met, said the minister.
Even the remaining 0.77 percent of the emergency stock is in danger, prompting the Ministry's decision in October not to heed any more judicial orders for permits.
"From what stock can I give more quotas? We had a contingency fund that has already passed its limit. Am I going to continue authorizing them to fish more than is permitted? It's not that we don't want them to fish, but they have to do so legally," said Villasante.
But this has created a clash between the executive and legal branches of government, as the Ministry is legally bound to obey the court orders.
Tierramérica found that several judges have taken steps when the Ministry of Production did not heed their orders. For example, Bertha Estrada Rivera, a judge serving in a lower court in Lima, rejected the opposition claim presented by the Attorney General's Office, which defends the interests of the state.
Behind the conflict are weighty economic interests.
All of the vessels involved in the dispute use the permits to fish for anchoveta to make fishmeal, which sells for about 2,000 dollars a ton. It is much more profitable than selling fresh fish for human consumption at 300 dollars per ton.
The anchovies caught through the allegedly irregular permits in 2009-2010 are estimated to be worth more than 20 million dollars.
Among those cases, 11 permits were approved by judge Guillermo Zúñiga in the northern region of Piura, favoring a single individual: Joaquín Ocampo.
Ocampo had sued another individual to turn over the paperwork for a fishing vessel that had been inactive fore more than 25 years.
While those proceedings were under way, Ocampo convinced the judge to issue a legal stay so that the Ministry would give him the fishing rights, skipping over a key requirement for the permit: proving the recent activity of the fishing vessel.
The Ministry of Production filed a criminal complaint against Zúñiga and denunciations against other judges with the Judicial Regulatory Office.
According to Patricia Majluf, director of the environmental sustainability center at Cayetano Heredia University, fishing is barely regulated in Peru "and they have always looked for ways to get around the law."
There are many pending obligations in this regard, she said. For example, limits on emissions of pollutants are not enforced. And environmental guidelines for the construction of fishmeal factories were evaluated -- but never approved.
"What is saving us is that we have the most productive ecosystem on the planet," Majluf said. "But without adequate environmental protection, how long can it last?"
Peru must protect the anchoveta stock because it is the basis of an entire ecosystem, as a source of food for sea birds and other fish. It is not enough to look at overfishing solely from the perspective of commercial interest, she told Tierramérica.
Environmental experts warn that the anchoveta could follow the same path as the jurel, or mackerel (Trachurus Murphy), and the Peruvian hake (Merluccius gayi peruanus), whose stocks were devastated along the Peruvian coast.
Furthermore, specialists in the sector say that the Peruvian people should be encouraged to eat fresh anchoveta, instead of this resource going to fishmeal.
José Nicanor Gonzales, Villasante's predecessor at the Ministry of Production, said in a Tierramérica interview that anchoveta consumption in Peru should be increased to 20 kilograms per person per year. Today the goal is to reach just 3.5 kilos per person. Meanwhile, in Asian countries, average per capita consumption is about 80 kilos per year.
* IPS correspondent.