Saturday, May 28

The Smell of Money: Why Locals Think Peru’s Billion Dollar Fishmeal Sector Sucks | Fish oil

jJust before reaching Chimbote, a coastal city 260 miles (420 km) north of Lima, the Peruvian capital, you can smell it. It’s like the whiff of a fishmonger’s stall on a hot afternoon. For Peruvians it is synonymous with bad pong; “smells like Chimbote” means that something smells bad.

Once that smell was “smell of money”, according to another popular expression. A natural glut of Peruvian anchoveta, known locally as anchoveta, off the Pacific coast makes Peru the world’s largest producer of fishmeal, a condensed powder or cake made from ground dried fish.

The country exported a staggering $1.54bn (£1.13bn) in fishmeal processed into animal feed and pellets in 2019 Y $420 million of fish oil. A recent Guardian investigation revealing that many fish oil products on Western supermarket shelves are rancid was attributed to the fish oil industry’s vast supply chain, with fish caught in Peru, processed in China and shipped to European and American supermarkets. Chimbote has been the first link in this multi-million dollar chain since the 1950s.

But after many decades, Chimbote residents are reassessing their role in this industry, which they say not only harms their health and well-being, but also harms the ocean itself.

At around 20 cm long when ripe, the little anchoveta has been a game changer not only for the Peruvian economy but also for the global fishmeal industry. Oily and rich in protein, it is said to be the the most exploited fish in the history of the world and is preferred for high quality fishmeal and fish oil. In 2020, around 4.8 million tons of anchovy were caught, according to data from Peru. National Fisheries Society (SNP), that represents the sector.

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Most of the catch, around 98%, is processed into fishmeal: around 1 million tons of fishmeal and 171,000 tons of fish oil by up to 42 companies operating in Chimbote. Eleven of the largest companies are affiliated with the SNP, which says all is well, not just with the industry but with the health of the fish it depends on.

Industrial fishmeal smokestacks are seen in the port of Chimbote, in northern Peru.
People who live near Chimbote’s fishmeal factories say soot from chimneys coats the walls of their houses, clothes and gets into their food. Photograph: Reuters/Alamy

“For more than 30 years there has been no concern about overfishing, as a result of the fisheries management plan, which seeks the sustainability of the ecosystem and the fishing industry,” says Cayetana Aljovín, president of the SNP.

She says that the quotas allow a catch of only 35% of the adult fish population, leaving the rest to reproduce.

But in Chimbote the panorama is not so rosy. The many factories in the south of the city constantly produce smell, noise and soot in the chimneys. Residents say fishmeal processing plants are making them sick.

“The smell is nauseating, the vibrations from the factories break the walls of our houses,” says Lizzety Ávila, 58, a community leader in the 15 de Abril neighborhood, where only a brick wall and a path separate the chimneys that spit fumes. their brick houses built by themselves.

“Year after year, we’ve been fighting these factories,” he says of the buzzing and grinding noise emanating from a nearby plant. “We have people with pulmonary fibrosis, bedridden. We have neighbors who have died of cancer. These factories belong to multimillion-dollar companies and they only think about their profits, not about our quality of life, how we suffer living with this pollution.”

Liz Estrada, 45 years old, with neighbors in Trapezio, Chimbote
“Many people in the area are dying of cancer,” says Liz Estrada, 45, a baker in Trapezio, Chimbote. Photograph: Dan Collyns/The Guardian

In the adjoining neighborhood of Trapezio, baker Liz Estrada, 45, says soot from plant chimneys coats the walls of her houses, clothes and gets into her food.

“Many people in the area are dying of cancer. The kids are sick. Here we had a school and the parents had to remove the children because the contamination was tremendous,” says Estrada.

The Guardian was unable to independently verify claims that the contamination had caused cancer, but residents’ claims that a higher than normal number of children were suffering from allergies, respiratory problems and dermatitis were echoed by pediatrician Dr Lorenzo Rodríguez. , who performed surgery in the city for 16 years.

“In the hotspots, where there is a lot of fishmeal processing in Trapezio and 15 de Abril, in previous years I had suggested [to the parents] that they have to move their children,” says Rodríguez.

“I told him: ‘Your children are becoming more asthmatic, don’t just stand there.’ That is directly caused by these irresponsible companies not looking beyond their wallets.

“Unfortunately, the regulatory entities, the Ministry of Health and the companies, which should collaborate so that people see that they are not only desperate for money, they are not doing their part. The state is not playing an active role … and is allowing this to happen,” he said.

Dr. Lorenzo Rodríguez, a pediatrician, has worked in Chimbote for the last 16 years.
Dr. Lorenzo Rodríguez, a pediatrician, has worked in Chimbote for the last 16 years. Photographer: Jorge de la Quintana

The SNP, which represents at least eight of the country’s main fishmeal producers, denies that there is an increase in respiratory conditions among children, indicating that figures from the Ministry of Health show that Ancash, the region where Chimbote is located, it is below the national average for this type of disease.

He added that companies in Chimbote had invested $166m (£122m) in recent years to modernize their factories to cut emissions and move them away from residential areas.

But the impact of the industry is visible wherever you look. Once in the heart of a region known as the “Pacific’s pearl”, Chimbote was an important source of guano, the fertilizer made from seabird droppings that boosted the Peruvian economy in the 19th century. Today, the city’s waterfront overlooks Isla Blanca, stained white by centuries of guano, but cormorants and pelicans are rarer, and the bay itself, though full of fishing boats, is no longer teeming with life.

Factory effluents have polluted this once-pristine coastline for decades, says Rómulo Loayza, a biology professor at the Universidad Nacional del Santa in Nuevo Chimbote. On a boat trip to the bay, Loayza uses a small dredger attached to a rope to collect foul-smelling mud from the seabed.

“There is practically no oxygen in this mud. You can see there is no life,” he said, crushing the dark brown slime between his fingers. “This is organic waste from factories.” There are around of 54 cubic meters of mud covering the bottom of the bay, in some parts more than a meter thick, according to a 2003 study by Peru’s marine institute, Imarpe.

The SNP says that most of the sediment comes from El Niño events that have flooded the river, which empties into the bay.

Dozens of docks to individual factories line the bay. Before 2015, lax regulations allowed raw waste to flow directly into the water. Now a 10 km pipeline pumps it to deeper water, but nothing is done to remove the existing waste.

“What affects us most is the scarcity of the resource,” says Edmundo Aparicio, 67, an artisanal fisherman and union leader in Coishco, a fishing village near Chimbote. Photographer: Jorge de la Quintana

Meanwhile, fishermen say the biggest impact of the fishmeal industry is that it is sucking up all the fish, leaving nothing for them. In Coishco, one of the many nearby fishing villages, brightly painted boats sink into the white sand, a seemingly idyllic sight, but the result of the fishermen being forced to find other work.

“What affects us most is the scarcity of the resource,” says Edmundo Aparicio, 67, who grew up in the town and remembers a time when fish was so abundant that it was often given away on the beach.

“We used to provide for our families and, more importantly, put food on the table of ordinary people. Now fish is scarce, the price goes up and what we sell in the market goes to restaurants where we can’t afford to eat,” he says.

They are also angry at the big fishmeal companies for not treating them properly, they say. Chimbote fishermen formed a union 65 years ago. Today, its secretary general, Macedonio Vásquez, alleges that during the first wave of Covid-19 infections, companies took fishermen to work at sea after only one week of quarantine in a hotel, in violation of the country’s restrictions. at that moment. Peru has one of the highest mortality rates per capita in the world from Covid-19.

“The companies did not take precautions to protect the fishermen,” says Vásquez. “In the hotels there were many infections that were not taken care of by the companies. Hospitals were overwhelmed.

“Companions died, many died, but the deaths were not attributed to Covid-19 according to the death certificates.”

The SNP denied it, stating at the time that “the industry adopted provisions beyond what was legally required to safeguard the health of its workers.” He added that the union was forced to retract its accusations after being threatened with legal action.

Even if the industry began to address concerns about overfishing, pollution and labor mismanagement, Chimbote’s fishmeal industry could be hit by another problem. Global warming raises concerns about the long-term sustainability of Peruvian anchoveta. peruvian scientist Renato save us predicted in the journal Science that anchoveta could disappear from the country’s seas due to warming temperatures caused by the climate crisis.

If that happens, Chimbote will have nothing to show for its many decades of exploitation other than a polluted bay, empty fish factories and the white stain of the guano industry.

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