The smell of money: why locals think Peru’s billion-dollar fishmeal sector stinks

Just before you reach Chimbote, a seaside city 260 miles (420km) north of the Peruvian capital Lima, you can smell it. It’s like the whiff of a fishmonger’s stall on a hot afternoon. For Peruvians, it’s synonymous with a bad pong; “smells like Chimbote” means something stinks.

Once that scent was “the smell of money”, according to another popular expression. A natural superabundance of Peruvian anchovy – known locally as anchoveta – off its Pacific coast makes Peru the world’s biggest producer of fishmeal, a condensed powder or cake made from ground dried fish.

The country exported a staggering $1.54bn (£1.13bn) in fishmeal processed into animal feed and pellets in 2019 and $420m of fish oil. A recent Guardian investigation that revealed many fish oil products on western supermarket shelves are rancid has been blamed on the fish oil industry’s vast supply chain – with fish caught in Peru, processed in China and shipped to European and American supermarkets. Chimbote has been the first link in this multimillion-dollar chain since the 1950s.

But after many decades, Chimbote residents are reevaluating their role in this industry – one they say is not only harming their health and wellbeing, but is damaging the very ocean itself.

About 20cm long when mature, the little anchovy has been a gamechanger not only for the Peruvian economy but also for the global fishmeal industry. Oily and rich in protein, it is said to be the most heavily exploited fish in the world’s history and is preferred for high-quality fishmeal and fish oil. About 4.8m tonnes of anchoveta was caught in 2020, according to Peru’s national fishery society (SNP), which represents the sector.

Most of the catch – about 98% – is processed into fishmeal: about 1m tonnes of fishmeal and 171,000 tonnes of fish oil by up to 42 companies operating in Chimbote. Eleven of the largest firms are affiliated with the SNP, which says all is well, not just with the industry but with the health of the fish on which it depends.

“There hasn’t been concern about overfishing for more than 30 years, as a result of the fishery management plan, which seeks the sustainability of the ecosystem and the fishing industry,” says Cayetana Aljovín, SNP’s president.

She says quotas allow a catch of just 35% of the fish’s adult population, leaving the rest to reproduce.

But in Chimbote the picture does not look so rosy. The many factories in the south of town produce constant smell, noise and soot from the chimneys. Residents claim the fishmeal processing plants are making them sick.

“The smell is nauseating, the vibrations from the factories break the walls of our homes,” says Lizzety Avila, 58, a community leader in the 15 de Abril neighbourhood, where only a brick wall and a road separate the chimney stacks belching fumes from their self-built brick houses.

“Year after year, we’ve been fighting these factories,” she says over the whirring and grinding noise emanating from a nearby plant. “We’ve got people with pulmonary fibrosis, bedridden. We have neighbours who have died of cancer. These factories belong to multimillion-dollar companies and they only think about their profits, not about our quality of life, how we suffer living with this pollution.”

In the adjoining Trapezio neighbourhood, baker Liz Estrada, 45, says soot from the plants’ chimneys coats the walls of their homes, the washing and gets into the food.

“Many people in the area are dying of cancer. The children are sick. We had a school here, and the parents had to withdraw the children because the pollution was tremendous,” says Estrada.

The Guardian could not independently verify claims that the pollution had caused cancer, but residents’ claims that a higher than normal number of children were suffering from allergies, respiratory problems and dermatitis were echoed by paediatrician, Dr Lorenzo Rodriguez, who has run a surgery in the city for 16 years.

“In the hotspots, where there is a lot of fishmeal processing in Trapezio and 15 de Abril, in previous years I had suggested [to the parents] that they should move their children,” Rodriguez says.

“I said: ‘Your children are becoming more asthmatic, you shouldn’t stay there.’ That’s directly caused by these irresponsible companies who don’t look beyond their wallets.

“Sadly, the regulatory bodies, the health ministry and the companies – who should collaborate so that the people see that they are not just merely desperate for money – are not doing their part. The state is not playing an active role … and it’s letting this happen,” he said.

The SNP, which represents at least eight of the country’s top fishmeal producers, denies there is a rise in respiratory complaints among children indicating that health ministry figures show Ancash, the region where Chimbote is located, is below the national average for such illnesses.

It added that the companies in Chimbote had invested $166m (£122m) in recent years to modernise their factories to reduce emissions and to move them away from residential areas.

But the impact of the industry is visible everywhere you look. Once at the heart of a region known as the “Pearl of the Pacific”, Chimbote was a major source for guano, the fertiliser made from seabird excrement which powered Peru’s 19th-century economy. Today, the city’s seafront overlooks the Isla Blanca, stained white by centuries of guano – but the cormorants and pelicans are scarcer, and the bay itself, though full of fishing vessels, is no longer teeming with life.

Effluent from the factories has polluted this once-pristine coastline for decades, says Romulo Loayza, a biology professor at the National University of Santa in Nuevo Chimbote. On a boat trip into the bay, Loayza uses a small dredger attached to a rope to scoop up foul-smelling sludge from the seabed.

“There is virtually no oxygen in this mud. You can see there’s no life,” he said, squishing the dark brown slime between his fingers. “This is organic waste from the factories.” There are about 54 cubic metres of sludge coating the bay’s bottom – in some parts more than a metre thick, according to a 2003 study by Peru’s marine institute, Imarpe.

The SNP says most of the sediment comes from El Niño events that have flooded the river, which feeds into the bay.

Dozens of piers to individual factories line the bay. Before 2015, lax regulations allowed untreated waste to flow directly into the water. Now a 10km pipeline pumps it into deeper water, but nothing is being done to dispose of the existing waste.

Meanwhile, fishers say that the biggest impact of the fishmeal industry is that it’s sucking up all the fish – leaving none for them. In Coishco, one of many nearby fishing villages, the brightly painted boats are pulled up on the white sand – an idyllic-seeming image, but the result of the fishers being forced to find other work.

“What affects us most is the scarcity of the resource,” says Edmundo Aparicio, 67, who grew up in the village and recalls a time when fish was so plentiful it was often given away on the beach.

“We used to be able to provide for our families, and most importantly, put food on the table for the ordinary folk. Now the fish is scarce, the price goes up, and what we sell in the market goes to restaurants we can’t afford to eat at,” he says.

They are also angry with the big fishmeal companies for not treating them properly, they claim. Fishers in Chimbote formed a union 65 years ago. Today, its secretary general, Macedonio Vásquez, alleges that during the first wave of Covid-19 infections the companies brought fishers to work at sea after just one week’s quarantine in a hotel, in violation of the country’s restrictions at the time. Peru has one of the world’s highest death rates from Covid-19 per capita.

“The companies did not take the precautions to protect the fishermen,” says Vásquez. “In the hotels, there were many infections which were not taken care of by the companies. The hospitals were saturated.”

“Companions died, many died, but the deaths were not attributed to Covid-19 according to the death certificates.”

The SNP denied this stating at the time that “the industry adopted provisions beyond what it was legally required to in order to safeguard the health of its employees”. It added the union was forced to retract its allegations after being threatened with legal action.

Even if the industry did start to address the concerns of overfishing, pollution and poor labour management, Chimbote’s fishmeal industry could be hit by another problem. Global heating is raising concern about the long-term sustainability of the Peruvian anchovy. Peruvian scientist Renato Salvateci predicted in Science magazine that anchoveta could disappear from the country’s seas due to warming temperatures caused by the climate crisis.

If that happens, Chimbote will be left with nothing more to show for its many decades of exploitation other than a polluted bay, empty fish factories and the white stain of the guano industry.

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