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Anchovies, a wasted resource

Sea-River News Issue 112

15th September 2003

Anchovies that are caught in large quantities in all seas and in the Southern Hemisphere in particular, are often transformed into meal. With the increasing scarcity of predatory species (particularly cod) anchovy stocks are expanding. The Codex alimentarius advocates a modification of eating habits but this will be far from simple.

In Rome this summer the commission of the Codex alimentarius of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations defined new safety and quality standards. Amongst the measures taken were some concerning the use of food resources and especially those of fish and the anchovy in particular.

The anchovy is a small sea fish that lives in enormous shoals in the open sea. Some populations are concentrated near estuaries and others stay in the open sea. It feeds on animalcules in plankton and like other related species (herring, sprat, sardine) is consumed by numerous large predators: cod and other gadidae in particular. The anchovy, like most species that develop and reproduce rapidly, adapts very rapidly to modifications in the environment (increase in water temperature, upsurges of cold salty water) or modifications in stocks (scarcity of predators, overfishing).

The anchovy is present in all the seas of the world and is particularly common in the South Pacific (Peru, Chile), in the South Atlantic, in the Mediterranean and in the Indian Ocean (Malaysia, Indonesia). Even if European catches remain modest (a few thousand tons in France, Spain, Italy and Portugal), the catches in Southern countries are enormous: several million tons in Peru and Chile. Anchovies are rarely eaten in these southern countries despite malnutrition caused by lack of protein. Only 10% of the anchovies caught by Peruvians are used for human consumption! The remainder is transformed into fish meal for animal feed (pigs, poultry, fish-farms, etc.).

In these regions food safety is uncertain and the consumption of anchovies cannot be recommended. The flesh of this fish deteriorates very rapidly and any incident causing an interruption in refrigeration procedures renders the flesh poisonous (histidine, an amino acid in the muscles is transformed into toxic histamine). But the meal market is so big and lucrative that the industrial sector does not really want to see fresh developments… Exports of meal from these countries represent a large part of foreign commerce, and the development of aquaculture, which mainly concerns predatory fish, regularly increases world demand.
The Codex alimentarius has several roles at this level: to introduce safeguards in the preservation and the marketing of fish which implies a modification of eating habits (consumption of cooked or scalded fish for example), to develop the introduction of refrigeration procedures and inspections. The most difficult area is the coordination between the setting up of safeguards and the humanitarian and commercial concerns.