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Making Fish Food For People, Not Pigs, To Save An Ecosystem

By elevating the country’s anchovy catch to a delicacy, rather than an ingredient in farm food, Peru is hoping to change the direction of its fisheries.

How do you save a fish? Eat more of it.

While not true for many species, the Peruvian anchoveta is a victim of its own abundance. Schooling in the billions off the cool, clear waters of the Peruvian coast, the anchoveta, or anchovy, has been treated as a low-value protein source for pig feed and fertilizer rather than as the foundation of the region’s marine ecosystem, which yields 2% of the world’s global catch.

Virtually none of this makes it onto dinner plates. Thousands of Peruvians go hungry or suffer malnutrition, but most of the country has never tasted the nutritious fish, says marine biologist Patricia Majluf.

Majluf, a former seal biologist, has single-handedly ignited a campaign to raise the status of the anchovy from lowly fish meal to a common foodstuff. To help, she’s recruited one of the most powerful emerging forces to shape public opinion in the last decade: celebrity chefs. "If you want to add value to produce, what better way to turn it into beautiful food," says Majluf. "You’re creating a lot of value." While a ton of fish meal might fetch several hundred dollars, the same fish sliced into fillets can be worth hundreds of times more.

The government is now taking the lead by sponsoring the Peruvian Sardine Festival (Spanish language) launched several years ago. Celebrating the culinary delights of the tiny fish, the event attracts thousands of people in several cities to see (and taste) anchovetas prepared by the country’s best chefs, as well as cooking classes, nutritional talks, and cooking contests.

Peru now puts far more anchoveta on its plates than ever before. During the last seven years, the percent of the fishery devoted to food has risen from less than 5% to more than 15%. This share contributes about one-third, or $3 billion, of the fishery’s total value.

But Majluf’s ambitions go beyond the fishery. She’s pushing new marine protected areas that permit ecosystem-scale management and conservation of the region’s oceans. The government has now recognized the fishery as a national strategic resource, and is dedicating a portion of the harvest’s revenue to poverty alleviation.

But managing Peru’s valuable anchovies remains a challenge amid poverty and corruption. "Poor people don’t care much about sustainability. They want to survive and feed their families," says Majluf. "You need to show that good governance and sustainable use of resources is good for everyone."