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Once in the Shadows, Peru’s Squid Fishers Find Strength in Formalization

January 28, 2022
An effort to register an artisanal fleet becomes a source of pride for its community

Mario Fiestas remembers fishing with his grandfather as a boy off the coast of San José in northern Peru.

“They were guided only by the elements,” says Mario. “The color of the water, how the birds gathered, the position of the stars. At night, they knew they were home, because each beach has its own unique sound.”

For generations, Mario’s community has fished those waters, bobbing in the cold of the Humboldt Current, a meteorological wonder that is home to some of the most abundant and biodiverse marine life on the planet.

Mario Fiestas, center, has been fishing for squid in the waters of northern Peru since he was a boy. Today, he leads the San José Limited Fishing Cooperative.

Up until recently, the roughly 3,300 artisanal vessels like Mario’s that fish for squid and mahi in Peru operated largely off the grid. Not registered with the Peruvian government, they were unable to meet international sustainability standards that would enable broader access to export markets, or advocate for the management of a fishery that sustained them.

With the support of the Walton Family Foundation, local organization Sociedad Peruana de Derecho Ambiental (SPDA) and the U.S.-registered nonprofit Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP) partnered with the Peruvian government to work on ways for these artisanal fleets to gain institutional recognition, access fishing rights and start operating in the formal economy. To obtain and keep their formalization, artisanal fishers also commit to state regulations that protect the sustainability of the resource.

It’s part of an ongoing effort by the foundation and its partners to build a broad, inclusive coalition to support nature-based solutions that improve ocean health, build demand for sustainable seafood, increase incentives for fishers to use nature-friendly practices and advocate for climate-friendly ocean policy.

Crew members on a Peruvian fishing vessel pack their catch.

To aid in the formalization of the Peruvian artisanal squid fishery, the partnership between SPDA, SFP and the Peruvian government built an online platform that supports the registration of each fisher and their vessel.

This transparent system supports international supply chains as they look for sustainably-caught squid and also artisanal fishers seeking recognition by their government as an important and productive sector of the economy.

As a long-time community leader, Mario now heads the San José Limited Fishing Cooperative.

“Suddenly, there was oversight on the part of the state who told us our boats were not up to the required measurements,” says Mario. “We realized that if we did not unite through a cooperative and formalize through the government, we were not going to move forward.”

A Peruvian squid fisher handles her catch. To help improve sustainability practices and earn more for their product, Peruvian fishers are working with NGOs and the Peruvian government to become registered and gain access to increased fishing rights.

The global pandemic – which hit as formalization had just gotten underway – drove this point home even further for Mario and his cooperative. Registrations stalled and fishers who were not yet part of a formal economy received no economic support to sustain their business through the crisis. “We paid a high price,” he says.

The government has set an initial goal of 100% formalization by mid-2022. In Mario’s cooperative alone, 180 vessels are currently in-process. The cooperative has also purchased refrigerated trucks and adapted their boats to help members travel further out to sea, improving both product quality and workplace conditions.

“Now, we have insulated storage, warehouses and more powerful engines. The boats have cabins for the crew where they can rest properly and spaces for hygienic needs.”

The Peruvian government has set an initial goal of 100% formalization by mid-2022. In Mario’s cooperative alone, 180 vessels are currently in-process.

Formalization of the artisanal fishers has also driven home the importance of a well-managed fishery.

“The fisherman's mentality, before 2018, was that of an extractor — ‘I bring my product, I leave it on the dock and others do the rest,’ ” says Mario. “Now we understand that we have to maintain the resource. It maximizes the opportunity to monetize. That is opening our minds. We are empowering ourselves.”

As registration has grown, Mario sees NGO partners as advocates for his success.

For example, when the government was slow to process registrations in 2020, NGO partners worked with more than 20 major buyers of squid in the U.S. and Europe to call on the relevant institutions to accelerate the formalization of the Peruvian artisanal fleet.

“The presence of NGOs in artisanal fishing has been very important,” he says. “They have paid us a lot of attention and have helped us understand the regulations and the processes of formalization. It’s a recognition that we are a productive and economic force.”

In Peru, artisanal fishers seek recognition by their government as an important and productive sector of the economy.

“Artisanal fishers have always been among the lowest status in Peru,” says Mario. “It was a messy enterprise and a very hard life.”

But as the fishery has become formalized, their communities are reaping the benefits, both from the government and from a stable, higher price for their product.

“Fishing is suddenly a source of work that equals pride,” says Mario. “It empowered us to sell the product directly. And people are taking notice. This effort has not been in vain.”

Read the Spanish version of this story here.

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