Life-cycle assessment of Peru’s anchoveta fishery reveals it is “probably one of the lowest-carbon animal protein systems in the world”

"The most important thing at the end of the day for the Peruvian fishmeal industry is that it needs to keep a healthy fishing stock"
Ian Vázquez-Rowe is the director of Red Peruana Ciclo de Vida y Ecología Industrial (PELCAN) and a researcher at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú.
Ian Vázquez-Rowe is the director of Red Peruana Ciclo de Vida y Ecología Industrial (PELCAN) and a researcher at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú | Photo courtesy of IFFO
10+ Min

Ian Vázquez-Rowe is the director of Red Peruana Ciclo de Vida y Ecología Industrial (PELCAN) and a researcher at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. He is also a speaker at this year's IFFO Members Meeting in Miami, Florida, U.S.A., on 16 and 17 April 2024.

SeafoodSource: You are an expert in life-cycle assessments (LCAs). Why should seafood companies care about them?

Vázquez-Rowe: Companies should know about LCAs so they can maintain competition. If I'm overfishing, if I'm not taking care of the content of microplastics in my fishmeal, or if I have dirty processes lowering the grade of my product, it’s a problem for my bottom line.

So, companies should be interested in keeping the natural systems they depend on for their resources within sustainable standards. Of course, that is challenging because when we are talking about the biotic extraction of fish stock from the ocean, that's pretty straightforward because we've had, for years, the maximum sustainable yield, and that shows us what is being underexploited and what is being overexploited.

But, when we're talking about other things like microplastic content or other types of plastic released into the ocean, we don't have any clear benchmarks. This used to happen years ago with climate change; we didn't have a benchmark or metric to calculate the impact we were generating based on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and then carbon footprinting appeared, giving us another benchmark; we know that if Plant A is emitting 25 and Plant B is emitting 50, that's more or less a comparable metric that we can use to understand or to measure the level of impact or damage from different actors. LCAs try to make that standard, not only for carbon footprint or water use, but across the whole set of impacts a company or fishery has.

SeafoodSource: What percentage of the seafood industry has performed a life-cycle assessment to measure their impacts?

Vázquez-Rowe: Most of the seafood already is using some type of LCA methodology. But, if the question is how many are doing full LCAs, it’s very few. Most of the companies with industrial fleets in Northern Europe and to a lesser extent Spain, Portugal, France, and probably Canada and Australia, are doing some work on it.

In the case of Peru, which is my area of specialty, there have been LCA studies into fishmeal production in the past, but they have gotten outdated. It's an important ingredient for aquaculture feed, so to have good LCA studies on aquaculture, you also need good LCA studies on one of the main resources that is nourishing aquaculture, which is fishmeal and fish oil.

SeafoodSource: You recently finished an LCA of the Peurivan anchoveta fishery, which is a major source of global fishmeal and fish oil production. What did you find?

Vázquez-Rowe: The main thing that we have identified is that environmental impacts due to fishing restrictions have remained more or less stable between previous research done between 2014 and 2017, with data from 2010 through 2012, and with more current data.

Anchoveta is a species that schools in very dense patches in the ocean, and the schools are pretty close to the coast – around 25 to 30 miles out. It's pretty easy for a fleet to get out there and then bring the fish back to the fishmeal plant.

So, actually, the fishing stage is very low-carbon intensity with respect to most other fisheries worldwide, and comparing previous data to the data for 2019 through 2021, we see there's no major difference; the fishing effort has not changed.

However, for the processing stage, we do have some changes, mainly because there's been substitution in terms of the fuel. Around 15 or 20 years ago, the fishmeal plant in Peru often had quite dirty systems that used heavy oils to heat and cook the fish meal. Now, they've got better controlled systems in which the heating occurs, often using natural gas, creating more stable temperature conditions. That change has lowered the carbon footprint of the processing stage by 10 percent to 18 percent. Not all the fishmeal plans have done this transition, but if you look at the big companies, most of the plants, especially the ones that produce most, have done this.

SeafoodSource: You have disclosed that you worked with Austral Group on this study. Did you work with other companies as well?

Vázquez-Rowe: We have some references from other companies which we are not allowed to disclose. But, their data seems to be more or less in the same direction as Austral; we haven't found major differences.

SeafoodSource: So, is it the case that, like many other seafood supply chains, a large part of the carbon footprint of Peruvian fishmeal and fish oil comes from getting the product to wherever it’s being consumed?

Vázquez-Rowe: Studies that have analyzed food production systems generally do not find a heavy impact in terms of GHG emissions. And, in my experience, transportation-related emissions represent 5 percent to 12 percent of the Peruvian anchoveta fishery’s total related emissions. However, because fishmeal’s fishing and processing impact is very small, relatively, marine freight on major routes to China, Europe, and America is now 20 percent to 30 percent of its total GHG impact, even though it’s not very high in an absolute number.

SeafoodSource: So, on a large scale, would you say the Peruvian fishmeal industry is pretty low carbon?

Vázquez-Rowe: It's probably one of the lowest-carbon animal protein systems in the world. It's quite upstanding, and it’s something people don't expect. Regarding conditions like El Niño, which started in 2023, the anchoveta seeks out cooler waters and disperses to different areas, which highly impacts catch rates and the fishing fleet has to use more fuel to find the fleet. But, outside of this phenomenon, which hits once every 18 to 25 years, we can actually say it's a very low-carbon protein product.

SeafoodSource: Aside from El Niño, is climate change affecting dispersal or catch rates of Peruvian anchoveta?

Vázquez-Rowe: I think that's happening worldwide as fish seek cooler waters, and we haven't had access to sufficient historical data to see whether that’s having an environmental impact for Peru’s anchoveta fishery. I’m sure it’s also affecting Peru’s other big fishery – the jumbo squid – where we know when the ocean surface becomes very warm, catchability is affected.

SeafoodSource: Is climatic migration of fish stocks something that the fishery is paying attention to? Is it taking any proactive measures?

Vázquez-Rowe: I think the industry is aware of the trend, and there’s another trend they’re paying close attention to, which is that the average size of the anchoveta is decreasing. That's an interesting thing because according to Peruvian law, an anchoveta is considered an adult when it's 12 centimeters long, but researchers have found they can actually be considered adults at 10.5 or 10.7 centimeters. 

Exploiting fisheries about the maximum yield is influencing that because we've seen that in tuna also, with the average size decreasing in the past few decades. So, that's not really surprising, but it could be maybe something related to climate change. I don't think it's so notable that anchoveta schools are going farther south yet. Also, the anchoveta fishery doesn't behave like other fisheries; it doesn’t have differences in annual behavior but, rather, is very influenced more by El Niño and La Niña, which puts noise into the statistical modeling and makes larger-scale movements more difficult to detect.

Currently, most of Peru’s anchoveta is caught in the region north of Lima, while the southern stock only accounts for 10 percent to 15 percent of catches, but there is a very high fishmeal capacity in the south, which is not being used much right now. In the north, Austral has around 100 working days per year, while in the south, the number goes down to 40 or 50 days. In the next few decades, that may flip as the school moves south in search of colder waters. 

SeafoodSource: Regarding the smaller sizes of the anchoveta, is that having any impact on ...

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