Anchovies: Fishing, Peru, Boom, Bust, Fishmeal and El Nino

Home | Category: Commercial and Sport Fishing and Fish


Northern anchovy

Anchovies are small, thin, silvery white, compressed fish with long, protruding snouts that overhang their large mouth. The feed on plankton, grow quickly, up to about 18 centimeters (7 inches), and have a short life cycle. Anchovies form large, dense schools near the ocean surface and move short distances along the shore and offshore.. They are an important part of the food chain for other fish species, including many recreationally and commercially important fish, as well as birds and marine mammals [Source: NOAA]

Northern anchovies (Scientific name: Engraulis mordax) are bluish-green above and silvery below, and adults have a faint silver stripe on the side. Also known as anchovies, North Pacific anchovies, California anchovies, they are able to spawn after two years and rarely live longer than four years. They have high natural mortality; each year 45 to 55 percent of the total stock would die of natural causes if no fishing occurred. Northern anchovies spawn throughout the year, with peak activity from February to April. Females release batches of eggs every 7 to 10 days. The eggs hatch in 2 to 4 days, depending on the temperature of the water.

Northern anchovies are found from British Columbia to Baja California and in the Gulf of California. They anchovies are divided into two sub-populations in the United States: The northern sub-population is found off Oregon and Washington. The central sub-population ranges from California to Baja California, Mexico.

Websites and Resources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Fishbase ; Encyclopedia of Life ; Smithsonian Oceans Portal

Anchovy Fishing

model of anchovy fishing

Anchovy fishing is a big industry in some places, particularly Peru (See Beow). Billions of the fish are trapped by modern flotillas of purse seiners guided by spotter planes and electronic sounding devices are turned into canned fish and fish meal for fertilizer and numerous other industrial uses.

Northern anchovies are generally harvested in the United States with round haul gear. They have been fished off the West Coast since at least 1916. The fishery was small until the Pacific sardine fishery collapsed in the 1940s and 1950s. Processors began canning anchovies instead of sardines, and fishermen started harvesting more anchovies. Consumer demand for anchovies decreased after the sardine population recovered, and the commercial fishery for northern anchovies gradually declined. Today, northern anchovies are used mainly for bait in other fisheries and sometimes processed into fish meal.

In 2021, the commercial landings in the U.S. of northern anchovy totaled 3 million kilograms (6.6 million pounds) and were valued at $400,000, according to the NOAA Fisheries commercial fishing landings database. U.S. wild-caught northern anchovies are a smart seafood choice because they are sustainably managed and responsibly harvested under U.S. regulations. Although northern anchovies are thought to be abundant, the population levels are unknown. The fishing rate is at recommended levels. The gear used to catch northern anchovies is used at the surface and has little impact on habitat. Bycatch is low because the gear is selective.

Off the U.S. west coast there two subpopulations of anchovies: the northern or central ones. Formal stock assessments are not conducted for either subpopulation of anchovies, but data is collected to help monitor the populations. For example, estimates of abundance on both subpopulations through ship-based surveys have been completed annually since 2016. The northern subpopulation has never been formally assessed, but is thought to be abundant, and has a defined overfishing limit. The stock is not subject to overfishing based on 2021 catch data. The central subpopulation was assessed in 1995, but results were not used to support stock status. Despite this, the stock is thought to be abundant, and has a defined overfishing limit. The stock is not subject to overfishing based on 2021 catch data.

NOAA Fisheries and the Pacific Fishery Management Council manage this fishery under the Coastal Pelagic Species Fishery Management Plan: 1) Limits on the number and capacity of vessels in the fishery; 2) Regulations to reduce bycatch; and 3) Monitored through landings data. If landings increase significantly, or exceed the annual catch limit, then managers may make management changes. Federal management is coordinated with state fisheries management agencies so that regulations are consistent in state waters (within 5 kilometers. 3 miles of shore). All states follow federal regulations but some have additional regulations.

Peruvian Anchoveta

Peruvian anchoveta

The Peruvian anchoveta (Engraulis ringens) produces fishing catches greater than any other single wild fish species in the world, with annual harvests varying between 3.14 and 8.32 million tonnes (1,000 kilograms) throughout the 2010s. Almost all of the production is used for the fishmeal industry.The Peruvian anchoveta may be the world's most abundant fish species. [Source: Wikipedia]

Peruvian anchoveta is a species of fish of the anchovy family, Engraulidae, from the Southeast Pacific Ocean. The were previously thought to eat mostly phytoplankton, small zooplankton, and larvae. However, recent studies has shown they get most of their food from larger zooplankton, including macrozooplankton krill and large copepods. Peruvian anchoveta live for up to 3 years, reaching 20 centimeters (8 inches) in length. They first reproduce at about one year of age and 10 centimeters (4 inches) in length, but they are often harvested as early as 6 months of age and 8 centimeters (3 inches) in length.

Peruvian anchoveta are found in the southeastern Pacific Ocean off Peru and Chile, and typically found in huge schools within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of the coast. According to Fishbase: Anchoveta has a wide geographical distribution in the South Eastern Pacific Ocean, from Zorritos (4°30’ S) in Northern Peru to Chiloé (42°30’ S) in Southern Chile. There are three different anchoveta stocks: 1) the Northern-Central Peruvian stock, managed by Peru; 2) . the Southern Peru/ Northern Chile stock, managed by both Peru and Chile; and 3) the Central-Southern Chile stock, managed by Chile. The stock expands in warmer years up to the Gulf of Guayaquil (3°00’ S), in Ecuador, where a purse seine fishery operates, but since 2012 that the anchoveta population has been retracting

Peruvian Anchoveta Fishing

The anchoveta has been called "the most heavily exploited fish in world history". The top yield was 13.1 million tonnes in 1971, but has undergone great fluctuations over time. After a period of plenty in the late 1960s,the population was greatly reduced by overfishing and then crashed after the 1972 El Niño event,

dried anchovies in Portugal

The annual catches in the 2000s varied between 6.2 and 11.3 million tonnes, consistently more than for any other fish species harvested in the wild. However, declining catches throughout the 2010s diminished its lead over the Alaska pollock and skipjack tuna. In October 2015, an El Niño year, of 3.38 million metric tons of anchoveta surveyed by the Peruvian Marine Research Institute, only 2 million metric tons were of reproductive age; 5 million metric tons are needed to open fisheries. The fishing industry claimed populations were more around 6.8 million metric tons of reproductive-age anchoveta, so despite discrepancies, the Peruvian Ministry of Production allowed the opening of anchoveta fisheries the second season, but with a quota: 1.1 million metric tons, about half the quota of the first season of the year.

Peru's rich fishing grounds are largely the result of the cold offshore Humboldt Current (Peruvian Current) that causes a welling up of marine and plant life on which the fish feed. Periodically, El Nino (The Christchild), a warm- water current from the north, pushes farther south than normal and disrupts the flow of the Humboldt Current, destroying the feed for fish. In such years, the fish catch drops dramatically. The intrusion of El Nino occurred in 1965, 1972, and 1982-83, for example. The 1972 catch, a quarter its peak size, contributed to a crisis in the fish meal industry and the disappearance of fish meal as a leading Peruvian export during most of the 1970s. [Source: Library of Congress]

Uses of Peruvian Anchoveta

Until about 2005 the anchoveta was almost exclusively used for making fishmeal (See Below). Peru produces some of the highest quality fishmeal in the world. Since 2005 anchoveta is increasingly used for direct human consumption, as fresh fish, as canned fish or as salted-matured fillets packed in oil. Peruvian canned anchoveta is sold as Peruvian canned sardines. The new use is sometimes called the second anchoveta boom, the first boom being the discovery and subsequent fishery and fishmeal production in the 1960s/70s.

The second boom was kick-started by the Peruvian Fish Technology Institute CIP, assisted by FAO. A large scale promotion campaign including by the then-president of Peru Alan García helped to make the anchoveta known to rich and poor alike. Previously it was not considered as food and hardly known among the population. It is now found in supermarkets and served in restaurants. Still, only 1 percent of anchovy catches are used for direct human consumption and 99 percent continue to be rendered into fishmeal and oil.

Canned anchovy fillets found commonly in the US are intensely salty and are often removed of skin and bones. Often, they are marked as "Product of Morocco," which are salted-matured anchovy fillets. Canned anchovetas are sometimes marketed with the culinary name "Peruvian sardines" to promote domestic and international consumption, as sardines are usually in higher demand. Recently, new ways of preparation for the anchovetas have been developed in Peru, so new products are already in the international market such as anchoveta chicharrones, anchoveta jerky meat, anchoveta paste, and anchoveta steaks.

Anchovy Fishing in Boom in Peru

anchovy fishing in 1938

Exports of fish meal and fish products, mainly are of critical importance for Peru's economy. For this reason, changes in the environmental patterns on the coast or in the adjacent ocean have devastating consequences for employment and, therefore, national stability. The periodic advent of a warm current flowing south, known as El Nino (The Christ-child), and intensive fishing that has temporarily depleted the seemingly boundless stocks of anchovy have caused major difficulties for Peru. [Source: Wikipedia]

In the 1960's Peru was the largest fishing nation in the world, surpassing even the Soviet Union, Japan, China, and the United States. In the 1990s it was third. Largest harvesters of fish (metric tons): 1) Japan (7.5 million); 2) China (7 million); 3) Peru (6.7 million); 4) Chile (6.5 million); 5) Russia (5.2 million); 6) the U.S. (5 million). [Source: National Geographic]

Up until the 1950s, the Peruvian economy relied on guano for much of its foreign export income. The guano was shoveled off of islands and produced by sea birds that fed on the anchovies. In the 1950s, Peruvians began short circuiting the food chain: They built a vast fleet aimed not at guano of the fish birds but at the fish themselves. By 1970 1,500, modern fishing vessels hauled in 14 million tons of anchovetas a year—a fifth of the world's fish catch. Meanwhile the guano birds, unable to compete with the fishermen and jolted by Niños, sharply declined in numbers." [Source: Niño's Ill Wind" by Thomas Y. Canby, National Geographic, February 1984]

Fishing was revolutionized by nylon nets, which replaced cotton ones that wore out in a few weeks, and purse seine fishing boats, whose nets could pull up tons of fish at a time. More than 100 vessels brought in six million tons of sardinlike anchovetas in 1962. The business only stared in 1950, fishermen made $800 a month, a lot of money at that time especially in Peru.

Peruvian Anchoveta Fishmeal

Peru was the world's largest exporter of fish meal In the 1960s, Kenneth Weaver wrote in National Geographic: "The little anchovetas, three or four inches long, go directly to the fish-meal plants. Giant suction hoses reach into the ship's holds, like elephants' trunks. Bright streams of fish roar through the hoses to be belched into waiting trucks." [Source: Kenneth Weaver, National Geographic magazine, February 1964]

"We followed one truck to its destination, a place of stench and steam and roaring flame. Dumped into a deep well, the little fish slithered down in a vortex, like water flowing out of a tub, as an auger screw at the bottom emptied the well. On an endless belt the anchovetas passed into a cooker, then through a sieve, into a press to give up water and oil, to a rotating oven, finally to a grinder."

"Dried and pulverized, the light-gray fish meal passed through overhead tubes to be sacked. Mountains of meal in burlap bags waited for shipment to Germany, England, the Netherlands, and the United Sates to be used for poultry and pig feed."

Fishmeal is protein rich. It is often added to grain in livestock feed and increasingly fish farm feed to give the mainly grain-based feed a protein boost. Researchers have explored putting fishmeal into milk to enhance the nutritional value of malnourished children.

Global capture of anchovies

Anchovy Fishing in Bust in Peru

In the 1960s, however, there were indications that the nation's offshore fishing area was being overfished. Experts estimated that the fish catch should be about 8 to 9 million tons a year if overfishing was to be avoided. In 1965 the government attempted to limit the annual fish catch to 7 million tons but without success, partly because investments in ships and processing facilities greatly exceeded that level. By the late 1960s, a finite resource was being depleted. In 1970 the anchovy catch peaked at over 12 million tons. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In 1973 the government nationalized fish processing and marketing. However, the fish industry became a large drain on the government budget as the national fish company paid off former owners for their nationalized assets. The meager catch at this time was less than 4 million tons. Partly to reduce the drain on revenue, in 1976 the government sold the fishing fleet back to private enterprise. Emphasis was also shifted away from fish meal, mainly from anchovies, to edible fish and exports of canned and frozen fish products. *

The fishing industry recovered in the late 1970s, but the return of El Nino in 1982-83 devastated the industry until the mid-1980s. By 1986 the total fish catch exceeded 5.5 million tons and by 1988, 5.9 million tons, with exports of fish meal valued at US$379 million. The 1989 catch totaled 10 million tons, an increase of 34 percent over 1988, and fish meal exports were worth US$410 million. In late 1991, Congress passed a decree that eliminated all restrictions and monopolies on the production and marketing of fish products and encouraged investment in the industry. Pproduction was back up to 12.5 million tonnes in 1994. Then another El Niño hit in 1997–1998.

El Niño and Anchovy Fishing

The population of anchovies off of Peru are greatly reduced by El Niño events. El Niño is a periodic climate condition that occurs an average of every five years. It is strongest in the Pacific but has global ramifications. Caused when a dominate high pressure system over the Pacific collapses, it causes wind directions and ocean currents in the Pacific to change direction, throwing off prevailing winds and bringing drought to Indonesia, Southeast Asia, southern Africa and Australia, heavy rains and floods to Peru. [Source: Curt Suplee, National Geographic, March 1999]

The name El Niño (Spanish for "the Christ Child") was coined by Peruvian fishermen in the port of Callao north of Lima in early 1970s because the warm air and water associated with change usually first appeared around Christmas. During El Niño events in Peru warm water drifts over the cold Humboldt Current and lowers the depth of the thermocline. Nutrient-rich waters then no longer upwell to the ocean surface and phytoplankton production decreases, leaving the anchoveta with a depleted food source.

The 1972 El Niño brought in warm water, herding the anchovetas into a pocket of cold water near the coast. Fishing vessels descended on trapped fish as they were a merciless conquering army. As much as 180,000 tons of fish was harvested was harvested a day. The fish and birds never recovered. Some of the world's largest schools were gone and the fishing towns became ghost towns. For a while sardines replaced the anchovetas, but by the mid 1980s they were gone too [Source: Niño's Ill Wind" by Thomas Y. Canby, National Geographic, February 1984]

A drastic reduction of anchovies was also brought about by another strong El Niño in the early 1980s, but production was back up to 12.5 million tonnes in 1994. The 1997–1998 El Niño, the strongest on record, again caused the population of anchoveta to plummet.

The lack of nutrients brought up from the deep water during El Nino events causes masses of anchovies that usually gather off the coast of Peru to move to new feeding grounds. When this happens Peruvians like to say: "Times are so bad in Peru that even the anchovy has left us.” What is Peru lose is sometimes Chile's gain. The huge concentrations of anchovies normally found in Peruvian waters often move southward into Chilean waters in El Niño years. During the 1982-83 El Niño fishermen found warm-water fish like sharks and swordfish in their nets. These fish are usually hardly ever seen off the coast of Peru.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, NOAA

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated April 2023

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.