The coastal waters of Peru teem with marine life.
Around dozens of small offshore islands, benthic species such as the Peruvian scallop, clams, mussels, octopus, crabs, shrimp, sea urchins and sea cucumbers thrive in the depths.
This rich marine environment has long sustained fishing communities along Peru’s coast. Most of the seafood eaten in the country is harvested by small-scale, artisanal fishers.
Late last year, the Peruvian government took a crucial first step towards creating a rights-based management system that would protect marine benthic fisheries, and the thousands of fishers who depend on them for their livelihood.
The draft regulation, which covers more than 80 commercially extracted species, marks a welcome recognition of the need to better manage fisheries in Peru, where poor management structures have contributed to a steady decline in the abundance of the main benthic species.
The challenges facing Peru’s artisanal benthic fisheries are significant. In addition to insufficient regulation, human population growth and the famed Peruvian gastronomic boom have placed ever-increasing pressure on these de facto open-access fisheries.
These seafood species are incredibly important to Peruvians because many are the main staples in daily meals for subsistence fishers in the communities that dot the coastline. They are also key ingredients in restaurant meals across the country that draw tens of thousands of culinary tourists to Peru’s burgeoning food scene.
According to Peru’s Ministry of Production, the number of vessels dedicated to the extraction of benthic invertebrates increased by over 640% between 1995-2015, which would imply a similar increase in the number of fishers.
Depending on the species, artisanal fishers use a multitude of methods to catch these species: Trawling nets from boats, free-diving, Hooka diving, or collecting specimens from rocks, beaches and reefs.
The high demand for seafood and free-for-all nature of Peru’s benthic fisheries have led to a decline in the fish and a sometimes tragic chain of events.
Many of these fisheries, because they did not have government-mandated management plans, have been overfished or collapsed.
All this has led to artisanal fishers finding fewer marine resources. Not only does this threaten the livelihoods of artisanal fishers, but it also forces them to continue fishing even in dangerous conditions such as strong swells and winds, or to dive both deeper and for longer periods of time.
Climate change is further exacerbating the problem and weak enforcement of fisheries law and safety regulations have resulted in the injuries or death of many Peruvian fishers, particularly divers.
With over 7,000 fishers dedicating themselves to harvesting marine resources, and many thousands more people depending on these resources further down the supply chain, the socioeconomic consequences of the crisis in Peru’s artisanal fisheries is huge.
Still, the actions taken by the Peruvian government, the work of environmental NGOs and the commitment of fishers themselves to protecting their resources are providing cause for optimism.
Since 2018, the Walton Family Foundation has partnered with the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law (SPDA) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) – Peru to present these successful cases of fishers self-regulating their fisheries, as proof of concept, to inform new Fisheries Management Regulations for benthic marine resources.
The case studies demonstrated to the government that fisheries could improve if the appropriate management plans were developed and mandated.
Over the past year, our partners have worked with the fishers, civil society and the government on an inclusive approach to develop a management framework that ensures the recovery of stocks of marine resources while securing the livelihoods of thousands of families over the long-term. The process has set a positive precedent to continue to support new rights-based management schemes for Peru’s many fisheries.
In a country whose fisheries are culturally important and recognized around the world, Peru will stand out as an example of how to manage fisheries sustainably.
This article was produced in collaboration with Ricardo Bandín, a marine biologist seconded to the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law, Christel Scheske, Project Coordinator of the Marine Governance Initiative of the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law, and Matias Caillaux, a Fisheries Specialist at The Nature Conservancy Peru.