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Marine experts flag new Peru marine reserve that allows industrial fishing

  • Experts say the establishment of a new marine protected area off Peru that allows large-scale fishing and the capture of deep-sea cod will damage the biodiversity inside the reserve.
  • Nazca Ridge National Reserve is the first fully marine protected area in Peru, covering 62,392 square kilometers (24,089 square miles) of the ocean.
  • Its establishment in June increased the proportion of the country’s territorial waters under some sort of protection from less than 1% to nearly 8%.

When Peru declared the creation of the Nazca Ridge National Reserve in the country’s southern waters this past June, it also increased — in one fell swoop — the proportion of its maritime area under protection from less than 1% to nearly 8%. But the move has sparked an outcry from conservationists, who say the only thing the reserve’s controversial management policies protect is the interests of Peru’s fishing industry.

The June 5 decree announcing the establishment of the 62,392-square-kilometer (24,089-square-mile) reserve was supposed to have been an unmitigated success story. Nazca Ridge National Reserve covers the two seamounts of Nazca Ridge and Salas y Gómez Ridge. The two ridges form part of a 2,900-kilometer (1,800-mile) submarine mountain range running off the coasts of Peru and Chile, where scientists have recorded 1,116 marine species, 30 of them globally threatened. These include the biggest animal that has ever lived, the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), and the world’s largest turtle, the leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea). Forty-one percent of the fish species and 46% of the invertebrates here are found nowhere else on Earth. The reserve also sits along the migration route of species like the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae), making this series of 93 seamounts an obvious focus of protection.

“Its main purpose is to protect an underwater mountain range that rises from 1,800 to 4,000 meters [5,900 to 13,100 feet] deep,” said Gabriel Quijandría, Peru’s environment minister.

Prior to this, only 0.48% of Peru’s marine waters fell under some kind of protection. Indeed, Peru lagged behind every other country in the region in complying with the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, whose goals include the protection of at least 10% of signatories’ coastal and marine areas by 2020. Peru missed that goal last year, but the establishment of Nazca Ridge National Reserve increases the proportion of the country’s territorial waters under some sort of protection to nearly 8%.

Map of Nazca Ridge National Reserve. Image courtesy of SERNANP.

Submarine mountains

However, experts have flagged the fact that the government decree establishing the reserve authorizes both industrial and deep-sea cod fishing within the protected area. The ongoing controversy centers around two particular articles in the decree.

Article 3 of the decree states that fishing rights acquired before the establishment of the reserve will be respected. Article 5 establishes what’s known as vertical zoning that defines the parameters for fisheries with large and small scale vessels, as well as artisanal ones. The article 5 also specifies that rights previously acquired by vessel owners will be maintained.

Mauricio Gálvez, a Chilean fisheries engineer and seamount expert who directs the Sustainable Ocean Research Center, says marine zoning isn’t easy because it usually involves several actors with different interests. For example, it’s necessary to consider coral protection areas, migration corridors for whales, navigation routes, and tourism and other economic activities, according to Gálvez.

Submarine mountains are highly biodiverse. Image by Eduardo Sorensen.

Marine zoning can be horizontal or vertical. The standard practice, Gálvez says, is guided by horizontal zoning which determines the areas of protection on the sea surface. Vertical zoning, on the other hand, plans from the surface to the seafloor. While the vertical approach is rarely used, according to Gálvez, it’s the standard employed for Nazca Ridge National Reserve.

This provisional vertical zoning, which must be updated in the upcoming master plan, establishes two separate zones: a direct-use zone that goes from the surface down to a depth of 1,000 m (3,300 ft), and a region of strict protection from 1,000 to 4,000 m (down to 13,100 ft).

Other experts interviewed by Mongabay expressed the same concern over this zoning approach: any fishing activity within the reserve, they warn, will damage the biodiversity of the area.

Industrial fishing is one of the concerns in the new protected area. Image courtesy of the Andean Agency.

“[The reserve] is a paper protected area that only protects the interests of the fishing industry,” says Juan Carlos Riveros, science director at marine conservation NGO Oceana. Oceana said in a statement that although the government insists the restrictions will be tightened up before the master plan is finalized, there is no way of knowing if the National Service of Natural Protected Areas (SERNANP), the government agency in charge of Peru’s protected areas, will make the necessary changes.

It’s not just conservation experts who have criticized how the new reserve is to be administered. Flor de María Vega, coordinator of the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Environmental Matters, sent a letter to SERNANP before the decree was issued. In it, she expressed her concerns over allowing industrial fishing and the current zoning approach, writing that this should only be defined once the protected area is established.

Industrial fishing in the reserve

César Ipenza, an environmental lawyer, says the path taken by the government is the wrong one. “They’ve tried to put [restrictions], nonetheless it continues to go against the law and regulations of protected areas,” he says. “The law indicates that there cannot be industrial or large-scale extractive activities within [protected areas], however this proposal allows it.”

Ipenza says the decision sets a bad precedent for other protected areas to be subjected to commercial activity, such as Paracas National Reserve, which covers both marine ecosystems and desert.

Tuna is one of the most widely fished species inside the new marine reserve. Image courtesy of

Riveros says industrial fisheries in the area covered by the new reserve mostly target tuna but also catch other species, like mackerel. Industrial fishing here isn’t selective, Riveros says, and employs capture methods that put other marine species at risk of being caught as bycatch. “This is a risk that is not contemplated in the legislation,” he says.

Oceana joined 20 other civil society organizations in issuing a statement before the declaration of the marine reserve, calling it illegal to allow industrial fishing in a protected area.

“Fishing permits do not grant absolute rights over the sea. It belongs to all Peruvians and its conservation must take precedence over private interests,” they said in the statement.

There is concern about the damage that industrial fishing could cause to biodiversity. Image by Eduardo Sorensen.

Joanna Alfaro, director of Prodelphinus, another of the organizations that signed the statement, points out that industrial fishing isn’t allowed in any other Peruvian marine reserve, including Paracas and the Guano Islands, Islets and Capes National Reserve System.

In response, the Ministry of the Environment said Nazca Ridge National Reserve is not a national park like the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador, which enjoys fully protected status.

“Nazca Ridge National Reserve, on the contrary, has a category of direct use that allows and promotes the development of activities for the sustainable use of natural resources, such as hydrobiological resources,” the ministry said, referring to fisheries.

It also said large-scale fishing can be carried out within the direct-use zone down to a depth of 1,000 m, but large-scale fishing within the strict protection zone is prohibited. The ministry said it considers the level of fishing in the reserve as not significant.

Nazca Ridge National Reserve aims to protect the submarine mountains, or seamounts. Image by Eduardo Sorensen.

Separately, SERNANP said “large-scale fishing for mackerel and horse mackerel are carried out at a maximum depth of 90 meters [300 ft] and, therefore, do not compromise the protection of the submarine mountains located from a depth of 2,000 meters [6,600 ft].”

SERNANP also said it’s prohibited to capture sea turtles and seabirds in the reserve, and that any caught as bycatch on the surface must be released to protect the reserve’s biodiversity.

Deep-sea cod fishing

According to the government decree, deep-sea cod fishing can still be carried out up to a maximum depth of 1,800 m (5,900 ft). This applies both to those who already have fishing permits at the time of the reserve’s establishment and those applying to renew their permits in the future.

Deep-sea cod fishing threatens the biodiversity of the seamounts. Image by Eduardo Sorensen.

Bruno Monteferri, an environmental lawyer with the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law (SPDA), said his organization published an article suggesting eliminating cod fishing from the reserve.

Gálvez, from the Sustainable Ocean Research Center, says allowing cod fishing poses a high risk of damaging the biodiversity of the seamounts that the reserve intends to protect. “Cold-water coral is slow-growing and can live for hundreds of years,” he says. “They are unique and can be damaged by cod fishing.”

Gálvez cites reports of fishing gear snagging on corals in other countries such as Chile and New Zealand. “You cannot think that it is not happening in Nazca,” he says.

He adds he’s also concerned about the effects the fishery may have on animals such as blue and humpback whales. “The damage is greater at the bottom, on the corals; but on the surface, other species can also be impacted by fishing gear or boats. It is thought that the blue whale uses the Nazca mountain range as a resting area,” he says. “They sleep on the surface and boats can collide with them.”

The humpback whale is one of the globally threatened species that plies the Peruvian sea. Image by Gudkov Andrey via Shutterstock.

On the issue of deep-sea cod fishing, the environment ministry says there are only six small-scale vessels operating in the reserve, dedicated to extracting between 7 and 13 metric tons per year. It adds that authorities have also added two restrictions to ensure this fishery does not threaten the biodiversity of the reserve: First, vessels are not allowed to fish deeper than 1,800 m to avoid impacts on the top of the seamounts; and second, they should use fishing methods that do not impact the conservation of the area.

Despite the concerns over the regulations covering the reserve, some experts have highlighted positive aspects.

Monteferri, from the SDPA, says that although the creation of a marine protected area always requires reconciling positions and visions, it is “a step in the right direction for the Ministry of the Environment and the Presidency of the Council of Ministers.”

Pedro Solano, a former director of the SPDA, adds that “Although the issues that are being raised are worrying, the establishment of a protected area in Peru is always a reason for celebration and a sign that we are moving forward because finally there is political will for conservation.”

What does the future look like for the reserve?

According to Oceana, civil society groups can take various actions to address the concerns. Riveros says Peruvian courts could strike down the application of the government decree’s articles and paragraphs that contradict Peruvian law.

A second option, he adds, is to request that the parliamentary committee overseeing environmental affairs perform a review of the decree that could eventually lead to its revocation. A third option, Riveros says, is to file a complaint with the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas so that it applies consistent protection criteria to every marine protected area globally.

Solano urges the establishment of a master plan that will define the environmental management of the reserve to reduce the impacts of extractive activities. Alfredo Gálvez, the SPDA’s biodiversity and protected natural areas expert, emphasizes the importance of continuing scientific studies in the marine protected area.

Cold-water corals deep in the sea. Image by Eduardo Sorensen/Oceana.

Banner image: There is concern about the damage that industrial fishing could cause to biodiversity in the newly designated Nazca marine reserve. Image by Eduardo Sorensen.

This article was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on June 11, 2021.