Peru's fishing sector is at risk of being significantly affected by this year’s El Nino, fishing expert and oceanic scientist Luis Icochea told Undercurrent News.
The weather phenomenon will particularly hit the anchovy stock and as a result the fishmeal industry, while also affecting giant squid catches for direct human consumption, said Icochea.
The El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO), commonly known as El Nino, started in February in the marine area nearby Australia. According to Icochea, its abnormally high temperatures this year are reminiscent of 1997-98, which witnessed one of the strongest El Nino ever.
Data gathered by the researcher suggests the event as grown in strength since it started, but only in April will data show more precisely the magnitude of El Nino.
Not all scientists share Icochea's forecast, however.
The latest report from NOAA's climate prediction center (NCEP), dated March 6, shows uncertainly about this prediction, and says there is about a 50% chance of El Nino developing during the summer or fall.
For his part, German Vasquez, president of ENFEN -- a Peruvian institution researching El Nino -- told local media the phenomenon this year is expected to be "from weak to moderate", similar to the El Nino of 2012, although he pointed out that “each event is different”.
Icochea, however, does not accept the parallel with 2012. Although that year also saw similarly abnormally high temperatures in waters close to Australia, Icochea argues that in 2012 a core of cold water towards South America blocked the advance of El Nino, something that is not happening now.
Rather, the researcher says the event this year is developing similarly as it did in 1997-98 and, if the patterns of the event continue as now, El Nino will hit mostly northern Peru and Ecuador, with consequences on the fishing industry to play out by the end of the year.
If this scenario does pan out, it is the anchovy stock that will be most affected, he said.
Pelagic fish such as anchovy will have to migrate to avoid the increased temperatures, and other commercially important species like giant squid, will also move to cooler, deeper waters where feed is available and there are suitable oceanographic conditions.
On the other hand, the phenomenon could mean higher catches of other species such as tuna, mahi mahi, swordfish or shark, as well as new species such as beltfish or oceanic lightfish. Unlike anchovy, which is used to feed Peru's huge fishmeal production, these species are used for human consumption plants.
The negative impact on fishmeal production could have a silver lining, however.
“If the event becomes stronger, it’s likely to affect spawning this year, but not adult fish. As they won’t be caught, adults will be bigger and produce larger numbers of eggs after El Nino. Thus, during the following year of the event, spawning can be performed better,” Icochea said.
The scientist however warned about the risk of overfishing of anchovy in case water temperatures soar off the coast of Peru this autumn.
“Oceanic and equatorial waters would concentrate anchovy near the coast so it can be caught easily in high volumes, which can lead to overfishing,” Icochea said.
The 1998 El Nino event saw Peruvian anchovy landings dive 80% to 1.2 million metric tons year-on-year, the lowest level seen at that time since 1986, according to the Central Reserve Bank of Peru (BCRP).
Exports dropped by 66% to 662,000t, reaching $396.6m, 154.6% less than the previous year, according to FAO fisheries department unit Globefish.