In El Niño years, a large pool of unusually warm water forms in the eastern Pacific. El Niños happen on an irregular cycle of two to seven years and typically last from nine months to a year or more. The phenomenon is associated with extreme weather events, from heavy storms and rainfall to unusually severe droughts in areas of North and South America and elsewhere. But the affect of most concern to the omega-3s industry is how the pool of warm water interdicts the Humboldt Current, the strong cold flow northward along the coasts of Peru and Chile that brings nutrient-rich water to the surface. This in turn give rise to plentiful blooms of the plankton on which the anchovies feed.
This year’s El Niño is predicted to be among the strongest on record. The phenomenon is so named (The Child, in English), because its effects usually start to make themselves felt most strongly around Christmastime. The potential effects of the phenomenon on the fishery can’t be overstated; in years with unusually warm water the fish disperse to find adequate food and don’t turn up in the fishing areas in sufficient numbers to allow effecient harvesting. And the fish are short-lived, meaning over harvesting a depleted year class could have catastrophic effects on the number of fish in future years, so careful management of the fishery is called for. And at last measure this fishery is still the source of about 70% of the world’s daily servings of omega-3 fatty acids.
Disparate stock estimates
According to GOED, IMAPRE, the Peruvian government agency charged with researching the fishery, has issued a preliminary estimate of 3.3 million tons of anchovy biomass in the fishery this year, which is generally considered to be too low to harvest. That estimate is based on an acoustical sampling cruise through the fishing areas. But another measure, called the Population Balance study, came up with a much higher estimate of the overall biomass: 8 million tons or more. That study uses last’s year’s biomass estimates and actual capture totals and includes estimates of reproductive rates and natural mortality. In both cases, the biomass estimates are arrived at through statistical modeling techniques, each of which has built in assumptions and corresponding limitations.
The two estimates don’t always agree, but usually don’t disagree by this much, leading IMAPRE to conduct additional research that came up with a new estimate of about 6 million tons of biomass, which would safely allow PRODUCE, the agency charged with setting the actual fishing quotas, to open a second harvesting season.
Too many juveniles?
The decision has come under fire from Oceana, an NGO that monitors fisheries. The organization said the decision whether to open a second season should be based on the number of adults in the biomass. That figure comes out to only 4.3 million tons, according to the organization. Prioritizing industrial harvest of the fish stocks when they are at low ebb puts at risk local fisherman who catch the fish as a primary food source and threatens other species such as birds that rely on the fish, Oceana said.
The organization warned that in its estimate the quality of the fishery has been declining for several seasons, with the fish being in poorer condition and yielding less oil. Indeed, authorities took the heretofore unprecedented step of closing one of the seasons entirely in 2014 because of low biomass in the fishing areas.