Peru's rich fishery has been utilized since ancient times, but it was not until the post-World War II decades that an extensive export industry developed. Peru's fishing industry rapidly expanded in the 1950s to make the country the world's foremost producer and exporter of fish meal. Although a large variety of fish are caught offshore, the rapid growth was primarily in the catching of anchovies for processing into fish meal. The fish meal boom provided a major stimulus to the economy and accounted for more than a quarter of exports in the mid1960s .

In the 1960s, however, there were indications that the nation's offshore fishing area was being overfished. Experts estimated that the fish catch should be about 8 to 9 million tons a year if overfishing was to be avoided. In 1965 the government attempted to limit the annual fish catch to 7 million tons but without success, partly because investments in ships and processing facilities greatly exceeded that level. By the late 1960s, a finite resource was being depleted. In 1970 the anchovy catch peaked at over 12 million tons.

Peru's rich fishing grounds are largely the result of the cold offshore Humboldt Current (Peruvian Current) that causes a welling up of marine and plant life on which the fish feed. Periodically, El Niņo (The Christ-child), a warm-water current from the north, pushes farther south than normal and disrupts the flow of the Humboldt Current, destroying the feed for fish. In such years, the fish catch drops dramatically. The intrusion of El Niņo occurred in 1965, 1972, and 1982-83, for example. The 1972 catch, a quarter its peak size, contributed to a crisis in the fish meal industry and the disappearance of fish meal as a leading Peruvian export during most of the 1970s.

In 1973 the government nationalized fish processing and marketing. However, the fish industry became a large drain on the government budget as the national fish company paid off former owners for their nationalized assets, reduced excess capacity, and processed a meager catch of less than 4 million tons. Partly to reduce the drain on revenue, in 1976 the government sold the fishing fleet back to private enterprise. Emphasis was also shifted away from fish meal, mainly from anchovies, to edible fish and exports of canned and frozen fish products.

The fishing industry recovered in the late 1970s, but the return of El Niņo in 1982-83 devastated the industry until the mid-1980s. By 1986 the total fish catch exceeded 5.5 million tons and by 1988, 5.9 million tons, with exports of fish meal valued at US$379 million. The 1989 catch totaled 10 million tons, an increase of 34 percent over 1988, and fish meal exports were worth US$410 million. In late 1991, Congress passed a decree that eliminated all restrictions and monopolies on the production and marketing of fish products and encouraged investment in the industry.

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