September 16, 2020

From Fish to Feed: Our Broken Global Food System

What is the connection between the commercial fishing industry and other forms of industrial animal agriculture? In this blog, Professor Nicholas Fromherz examines the role of Peru’s anchovy industry in propping up destructive and inefficient aquaculture and livestock operations worldwide.

If you gaze upon the Pacific Ocean near Chimbote, Peru, you will almost certainly find the horizon dotted with fishing boats, from small artisanal craft to large industrial vessels. Perhaps you’ll assume that the fish caught are bound for bustling local markets or restaurants. You may also have serious concerns about the ethics of this industry and associated market activity. But that which may not cross your mind is perhaps the most important: Many of these fish are not destined for direct human consumption at all. They are instead used as “feedstock” for aquaculture, poultry, and livestock operations in the global food system.

In fact, Peru’s anchovy fishery, the world’s largest single-species fishery, is almost entirely dedicated to the production of fishmeal and fish oil, the majority of which serves as feed for other animals. In just the first three quarters of 2018, Peru exported 950,000 metric tons of fishmeal. Eighty percent of this went to China, where it is primarily used in aquaculture operations, and to a lesser extent in chicken and swine farms. The basic industry model is to convert “low value” forage fish to higher value animal proteins for human consumption.

No matter the lens, the problematic nature of this system is clear. From an animal rights perspective, the fishmeal industry is the worst of the worst. One animal is sacrificed to feed another animal, multiplying the harm en route to human plates. From an environmental perspective, anchovies and other forage fish are the base of a trophic chain; overfishing of these species can provoke population crashes in larger pelagic fish and other predators. And from an economic justice perspective, the fishmeal industry creates scarce economic benefits for Peruvian workers relative to the size of annual profits. It is hardly a winning formula for mass alleviation of poverty.

But there is another problem still: the industry’s capture of juvenile anchovies. By some estimates, as much as 90 percent of the anchovies captured are juveniles during certain fishing operations. When boats capture excessive numbers of juvenile anchovies, this can quickly lead to population crashes, as such fish are deprived of the chance to reproduce. The inability of juvenile anchovies to reproduce has wide-reaching impacts throughout the ecosystem. Fewer anchovies, generation over generation, means insufficient food for anchovies’ natural predators, including mackerel, hake, bonito, tuna, giant squid, dolphins, whales, sea lions, and sea birds.

In late July, an investigative journalist at Lima’s Ojo Público interviewed me about this problem and Peru’s legal response to date. Readers can access the full interview here (in Spanish).

As I mentioned in the interview, Peru issued a decree in 2016 to achieve three related goals regarding the capture of juvenile anchovies: (1) to increase the collection of catch data, (2) to reduce discards at sea, and (3) to decrease juvenile catch. The decree attempts to accomplish this by eliminating fines for excess capture of juvenile anchovies so long as it is swiftly reported and then landed onshore (rather than discarded at sea). As concerns the first and second goals, the policy design is spot-on. However, it is not clear that this policy provides the right incentives to actually decrease the capture of juveniles, as opposed to merely gathering better data and reducing “waste” through discards. To protect juvenile anchovies and stop the broader resulting ecosystem effects, authorities need to close fishing areas immediately following reports of excessive juvenile catch—and then deploy sufficient enforcement resources to guarantee the integrity of those closures. Yet investigative work by Ojo Público shows that this doesn’t always happen. In fact, immediate closures are far from regular. Without this additional element—closures and enforcement of those closures—the policy arguably legalizes juvenile catch without doing much to reduce it.

When added to the other problems inherent to Peru’s anchovy fishery—chief among them, its role in propping up destructive and inefficient aquaculture and livestock operations—the struggle to protect juvenile anchovies from capture raises the stakes even higher. It is not an easy problem to solve, and Peru should not be asked to bear the burden alone. Countries with high consumption of farmed fish and other animals are just as responsible for the problems in the fishmeal industry and must become stakeholders in the process of change. Technical legal reforms and better enforcement are important, but so is wholescale transformation of our food systems. Because it seems many people are not aware of the connection between commercial fishing and other forms of industrial animal agriculture, an important starting place is raising public awareness.


Nick Fromherz is a senior staff attorney at the International Environmental Law Program (IELP) at Lewis & Clark Law School. Previously, Nick served as a Visiting Assistant Professor, teaching courses within Lewis & Clark’s Environmental, Natural Resources, and Energy Law program. Since 2015, Nick has taught Administrative Law at Lewis & Clark Law School during several summer sessions. Combining this experience with his considerable time living and working in Latin America, Nick expands IELP’s footprint in the Americas while building on IELP’s international wildlife practice. He previously served as senior attorney for Sea Shepherd Legal.

The Center for Animal Law Studies (CALS) was founded in 2008 with a mission to educate the next generation of animal law attorneys and advance animal protection through the law. With vision and bold risk-taking, CALS has since developed into a world-renowned animal law epicenter, with the most comprehensive animal law curriculum offered anywhere. In addition, CALS is the only program that offers an advanced legal degree in animal law and three specialty Animal Law Clinics, including our newly launched International Wildlife Law Clinic. CALS is a nonprofit organization operating under the Lewis & Clark College 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, and is only able to provide these educational opportunities through donations and grants.