LIMA Peru is broadening restrictions on commercial fishing to prevent the collapse of an important global fishery that has been "pillaged" to worrisome lows, the government said on Tuesday.
The government has decreed a large strip of Peru's coastal waters off limits to industrial fishing in a bid to ensure future generations of anchovy, which reproduce and spawn in shallow waters.
Big boats can no longer fish within 10 miles of the shore along Peru's central and northern coast, or within seven miles of its southern shores.
Production Minister Gladys Triveno said poor industry practices - such as throwing away unintended catches of young fish to avoid government fines - have largely caused the anchovy's population to dwindle.
Other species are also affected because they are picked up indiscriminately in industrial nets, she said.
Last year her ministry slashed the anchovy quota for industrial fishing operations for the November-February season to its smallest allowance in decades after government scientists found the species' population had shrunk 40 percent in just one year.
Most of Peru's anchovy catch is ground up and exported as protein-rich fishmeal to feed pigs in China or farmed fish in Europe.
Peru is the world's top fishmeal exporter and produces about a third of the global supply.
Anchovy prefer the cold waters of the nutrient-rich Humboldt current, which is home to a fifth of the world's fish catch and flows northward from Chile to Peru.
Triveno said the new policy will likely mean the anchovy catch will come in below last year's 3.7 million metric tons, which itself was a 38 percent reduction over 2011.
To boost domestic consumption of anchovy - high in protein and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids - the new rule allows small and medium-sized boats to fish where industrial ships cannot as long as their catches end up in food markets in Peru.
"We insist on putting direct human consumption of anchovy first," said Triveno.
But critics, including environmentalists and a group that represents fishmeal producers in Peru, say the smaller fishing operations face few restrictions and will end up selling anchovy at higher prices to export-oriented fishmeal factories - defeating the purpose of the law.
HUMALA DEFENDS RESTRICTIONS
Peruvian fishermen also complain there is not much anchovy beyond 10 miles from the shore, and say their Chilean counterparts will end up benefiting the most from the new restrictions.
"What we don't fish ... Chile is going to fish anyway. They'll fish everything they can," Alberto Borea, the leader of a group of fishermen in southern Peru, told local radio program RPP.
But President Ollanta Humala is defending the restrictions.
"Big companies have pillaged the anchovy, that's why the quota was cut last year and that's why the anchovy is in danger of disappearing," Humala told reporters on Monday.
"We favor a long-term policy that doesn't burn anchovy to feed animals in other countries but rather one that uses the anchovy to feed our own children," he said.
Humala has pledged to cut child malnutrition to 10 percent from the current 23 percent by the end of his term in 2016.
Efforts to encourage Peruvians to eat more anchovy have been in place for more than a decade in Peru, though today just 4 percent of anchovy caught is consumed domestically, according to the production ministry.
(Reporting By Omar Mariluz; Writing By Mitra Taj; Editing by Eric Beech)