Episode 79: Fishmeal—The Superfood That Never Was

Host: Christopher Rose, Center for Middle Eastern Studies
Guest: Kristin Wintersteen, Department of History, University of Houston

After World War II, governments and international aid agencies were looking for a way to ameliorate the widespread hunger and malnutrition that populations faced in areas devastated by war, poverty, and other ‘natural’ disasters. They found an unlikely suspect in fishmeal, and with it, lit up the economies of South America along the Humboldt Current. But the fish, as it turned out, had other ideas.

Guest Kristin Wintersteen has worked on the history of industry subject to the temperaments of on-again off-again current cycles in the Pacific, and how the boom and bust of one of the first superfoods has led to new discussions about global nutrition.

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What is fish meal? And why is it interesting?

Basically, this is a story about the process by which one oceanic region the Humboldt current ecosystem in the southeast Pacific Ocean became one of the world’s most important fish producing regions during the 20th century. So, the production of fish from this region actually took the form of concentrated fish proteins, fish meal, and fish oil, which were used primarily as an ingredient and animal feeds for chickens, and hogs and, more recently, farmed fish. In this marine ecosystem called the Humboldt current–I’ll explain in a minute why it’s called that–arguably the most important fish species is the anchoveta, which is scientific name is engraulis ringens. And today, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization classifies this as the most heavily exploited fish and world history. So as I was saying, this is not because it’s being used as food directly consumed by humans. This is in fact because it is used primarily to produce fish meal and oil for animal feed. And so this might be a surprising fact. Most people who have never heard of fish meal or fish oil, especially, to know that the supposedly most heavily exploited fish is used for this product rather than for direct consumption.

One of the questions that interested me in this context was amidst all the debates in the mid 20th century, both in South America and more broadly concerning world hunger and the need to improve the nutrition of the world’s poor. Why did industrial production in these countries, especially Peru and Chile, focus on harvesting these fish proteins for animal feeds, which was an export commodity within the relatively well known narrative of the decline of global fish stocks. This is a story about a hidden trade, so it’s not the glamorous story of frozen filets being airlifted around to top sushi restaurants. This is actually a rather unglamorous story of ocean resources being reduced. They’re called reduction fisheries to their most digestible form for use as an agricultural input.

This is also a story in which the natural environment is a major shaping force these fish populations respond directly to shifts and ocean temperature–most notoriously, those brought on by the recurring El Nino phenomenon. And at certain points in this history, the El Nino phenomenon dramatically changed the nature of the industry and the geography of the industry as well. In the book, I also examine the experience of three specific cities in order to look at the local impact of the sort of global industrial food economy throughout the 20th century.

You mentioned that a lot of this was an outgrowth of the post World War II discussion about global hunger. How does the fish meal industry play into the search for a solution?

Well, this is one of the questions that I examine in a particular chapter of the book. So specifically, the emergence of fish meal and fish oil as commodities and how they fit into the global food economy. So I would say that fish meal and oil didn’t emerge as commodities from discussions about world hunger. Although I was wondering what the connection was, there was already a demand established in industrial agriculture by the end of World War II for these commodities as animal feeds. So, what I found was actually that there is a direct connection to the industrial uses of whales and the creation of the market for this commodity for both fish meal and fish oil. So, as many people know, whales used to be used to render their oil into industrially usable products. So, whale oil was used to make soap and other types of products before these items were able to be synthetically manufactured. So when the whale populations began to decline in the Atlantic Coast of the United States, some fishermen and industrialists began to use the menhaden fish as a replacement for whales. So they were reducing these fish down into oil that was able to be used in products such as paints and glue, and other things that whale had previously been used for additionally, whale meal. So this is the dried version of the whale, the whale matter where the oil has been removed was used also as a fertilizer.

Similarly, menhaden was being used as a fertilizer. So there are older indigenous traditions in which people would bury a whole fish alongside a seed. So this is true also in coastal Peru and also in Japan, that this was a long standing tradition to use fish as a fertilizer placed directly into the land that was being cultivated. So, similarly in the Atlantic and I, I don’t have a lot of direct research about other areas in the world. But it’s probably true that in most areas that were on coastal regions where they were cultivating crops, people discovered that this was one way of fertilizing their crops. So during the 19th century as industry agriculture started to take shape. There was a need, for example, in Europe to produce greater quantities of food for populations where there had been problems with famine. And in the United States, of course, the population was expanding westward, and people were beginning to figure out how to produce greater quantities of food, using the resources that were available to them increasingly through international trade.

So, in Germany and the United States, researchers set up agricultural experimental research stations and among other things, one of their top priorities was to investigate what substances could be used an animal feeds to allow them to grow and thrive and captive environments. So animals like chickens and hogs in particular, they cannot manufacture from the food they eat all the types of amino acids that they require for their nutritional growth and researchers discovered that by feeding them fish proteins, they were able to grow and thrive and have relatively healthy immune systems. Whereas normally. although scientists didn’t understand the nutritional chemistry at the time, these animals would obtain their proteins from foraging. So insects and nuts or whatever else they would eat on the ground seeds and etc. So when they’re raised in captive conditions, and fed specially formulated feeds, these feeds have to include certain types of proteins. So, at first, this was called the unidentified growth factor, the element in these proteins that the scientists didn’t fully understand that was allowing these animals to grow and thrive in this environment which was unparalleled by any other additives that they tried, Still to this day there is no known synthetic substitute for this substance.

Your work focuses specifically on the Humboldt current ecosystem, which is in South America off of the Pacific coast. What is special about that area that allowed this industry to take off in Chile and Peru?

Yes, this is a very important part of the story. So the Humboldt current is significant to this industry because of its impressive biological productivity. So this is singular. In the context of the world oceans, many scientists believe it is the world’s most productive marine ecosystem. This is in terms of biological productivity, as opposed to biodiversity. It produces approximately 10% of the global fish catch and about 0.1% of the ocean surface. The characteristics of this area is that it is formed by a cold, nutrient rich upwelling of water. So the water rises from the depths of the ocean, the ocean current flows northward from the Antarctic region, and also upward from the ocean depths when the current hits the deep ocean trench off of the western coast of South America. This is the location where the Nasca and South American plates converge.

All of the earthquakes there, when the ocean currents flows up against the edge of the continent, it rises to the surface level. And this allows a high degree of primary productivity across the spectrum from plankton and krill to the larger predators that consume them such as whales, tuna, hake, and other marine mammals. This region was important long before the production of fish meal and the rise of this industry in the 20th century.

So in terms of the history of science, Alexander von Humboldt was the first person to measure it with a thermometer, which at the time in 1802 was a relatively new technology. So Humboldt did not discover the current and he did not claim to discover the current but it carries his name, which is a point that’s debated among some people, whether he should or not, it carries his name because of this act that he measured the current and the other thing that he did, was he sort of recognized its significance in terms of global oceanography, that the warmer Gulf Stream in the Atlantic was already known at this point, which was significant to the passage of ships from Europe to the Americas, the the Gulf Stream current effects navigation. This was a well known phenomenon at the time when he traveled there. And in 1802, in an era, when oceanographers were just beginning to think in terms of the global connectivity of ocean circulation, when he was able to measure the cold waters of this area, which were unusually cold for the latitude being in the tropics. He put it together with what he knew about the Gulf Stream as a sort of complimentary warm current in the North Atlantic. This marine ecosystem off the coast of Peru is one of the most productive, as I mentioned, in the world, or perhaps the most productive depending how you measure it.

But there are also three other so called eastern boundary current upwelling systems. One is the California current off of the western coast of North America. Another is the Iberia, or Canary current, and the North Atlantic. And finally, the Benguela current off the western coast of Africa in the southern Atlantic. So the reason why the industry came to this area, specifically in the 20th century, has to do in part, with its connection to the California current, specifically the sardine industry in California, which is well known from, for example, John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, so most people know about the sardine canning. What they might not know is that fish meal and oil were being produced at the same time as the sardines were being canned. So, in other words, the scraps that we’re not used by the canned product were able to be converted into fish meal in oil. And this was one of the first ways that this product was made. In fact, some scholars have claimed that or at least one scholar has claimed that the production of fish meal which was being used for fertilizer first, and then animal feed actually subsidized the production of canned fish, because it was a more lucrative product for the industry for the fishing industry.

So, in the 1940s, the sardine industry off of California collapsed. And many of the entrepreneurs, fisherman, and also the boats and equipment from their plants ended up transferring to South America. So in other words, some of the people went there to continue their work and fishing because they didn’t have more work in California. Others sold their equipment and their boats to be used by entrepreneurs in South America. They came first and foremost to Peru, but also to the north of Chile to some extent. And so, at the time when the California sardine industry collapsed in the 1940s. By this point, the research for using fish meal and animal feed was well established at that point by the end of World War Two. And so there was already a demand for this product. So sort of the two things converging at the same time, both the market being already established and the need to find an alternative source for fish meal and oil after the collapse of the sardines.

The second half of the subtitle of your book deals with the industrialization of the Humboldt current ecosystem. How did that industry progress?

In the 1940s and 50s, when the industry was shifting from the North Pacific to the South Pacific, Peru, and Chile, among other Latin American nations, were looking to build up their domestic industry in a program called import substitution industrialization. So the purpose of this was to industrialize domestically in order to reduce dependence on foreign goods. And so fish meal and fisheries in general seemed to offer an opportunity for import substitution industrialization because these countries were not prepared– obviously fishing at an industrial scale, there were fisheries, there were coastal fisheries, but they were not developed at industrial scale by this point. So they were only important to the local coastal communities. And there was very little infrastructure to transport and process fish on land. So this was an opportunity for these countries to industrialize, develop some of their infrastructure, and also bring in new technologies for extracting fish and for processing them. However, this only partly met the goals of import substitution industrialization because fish meal and fish oil, the processing of them, they’re not creating any kind of high tech product that would replace something they would otherwise import and the value of this product on the global market was relatively low, so it was lucrative and more profitable than exporting fish fillets or things like that at the time, but it was relatively less profitable, for example, then other types of domestic industries that relied on more technology. Most of the labor employed in this industry is in the harvesting and extraction. There are relatively few workers involved in the fish meal and fish oil plants.

So, the most major most important boom and the production of fish meal and oil occurred between 1957 and 1972 primarily focused along the coast of Peru. So there was a period of sort of unbridled investments and extractive activity along the coast. They’re also in the north of Chile, but it was most important along the coast of Peru and this involved both local entrepreneurs as well as foreign firms, including some major pharmaceutical and agricultural firms in the US today such as Pfizer and Cargill and these other firms. All of these firms ended up leaving when signs of political unrest began later in the 1960s and early 1970s, in both Peru and Chile.

There was also as I mentioned throughout the 1960s, a period of sort of unbridled investment in harvesting of these fish. And so it’s also true that the highest numbers of fish were extracted in specifically 1970 right before this collapse occurred. And there had been warnings by scientists that this level of extraction could not be sustained. So it’s really a combination of both the human activity and the natural factors, the climatic conditions that sort of conspired to create a major economic and environmental disaster.

Of course, when El Nino occurs, this also wreaks havoc for all of the other animal populations who depend on these fish for food as well. So this is a sort of notorious story in the context of Fisheries Management, everyone who learns about fisheries. This is a sort of textbook case of what happens when authorities are not careful about how they’re managing fish populations and are not attendant to climatic conditions, which are poorly understood and fluctuate in ways that are hard to predict. However, one of the things that I’m looking at in the study is how does the story change if we expand the frame out just from this case in Peru, specifically to the rest of the marine ecosystem along the coast of Peru and Chile.

So the major decisive force sort of punctuating this history in this case is there was a major collapse of the Peruvian anchoveta. There’s been a lot of debate over the years about whether this collapse in 1972 was due to environmental factors or due to over exploitation of the fish species. In 1972, there was a major El Nino event. And as I mentioned before, the anchovy populations respond directly to the oceanic shifts associated with these atmospheric and climatic conditions. So when El Nino occurs, the coastal waters warm to a greater degree than they normally are, and the fish populations disappear. So they either produce less, they reproduce less. And they also go to other areas in search of colder waters. So for local people who are involved in harvesting and processing, all they know is that the fish are not in the same areas where they normally fish.

So actually and later in the decade, there was a boom in southern Chile–Chile eventually around 1980 surpassed Peru as the primary producer of fish meal in the world based on a number of factors, one of the most important of them being that there was a sudden appearance of sardine populations off the coast of southern Chile. So the Peruvian anchoveta Engraulis ringens is not the only species that’s used for this commodity, but it is the most well known in this context. So producers also used sardines and jack mackerel, sardines is a sort of general term, but a couple of species that are very similar to sardines and jack mackerel to make fish meal. Sardines and anchovies in particular, have a very interesting relationship where when one is abundant, the other is relatively more scarce. And then their populations sort of reverse so when the anchovies disappear, there are relatively more sardines and this is called an alternating fisheries regime by scientists. So these again are biological relationships that were not well understood at the time and are still relatively poorly understood.

So in the south of Chile there was a boom in sardines. In Peru they were not able to use sardines for fishmeal production; there was a law against it–This was to preserve the sardines for human consumption for canning, however they were producing fishmeal using the sardines but illicitly so in the south of to lay it was totally permitted to use these fish for fish meal. And also, now we’re in the era of the Pinochet regime where there was a lot of encouragement of private industry to grow and using natural resources for exports. Finally, then there was also a boom in the jack mackerel populations. So between the sardines sort of earlier on in the decade and the jack mackerel populations Chile was able to overtake Peru in production as the anchovy populations recovered. It took a very long time for the anchovy populations to recover. And finally in the 1990s, they were back at levels where industrial production of fish meal could continue.

And so this is a slightly over simplified, you know, narrative that’s showing how production shifts from one region to the other. And unlike some other stories of natural resource booms and busts, there actually was some recovery economically and ecologically. This has to do in part with the very particular biological nature of these fish. So where they respond very directly to oceanic conditions in terms of population decline, they also are sort of designed so to speak, to recover.

This brings me to one of the lessons of the story which is it’s important as historians to think in terms of cycles. So this is a story where I don’t want to suggest that human action that human exploitation of marine species will not ultimately affect those species. What I’m trying to do is complicate the narrative of environmental decline or decline of fisheries. It’s not really just a straightforward direct line, you know that you might get if you read something like Mark Kurlansky’s Cod book. So when we’re looking at these species that are used to produce fish meal, it’s a very dynamic story. So there is, on the one hand, there is a long term trend towards decline if humans are not careful about how they manage and extract them. But on the other hand, throughout the story of this, there is a lot of fluctuation in the environment and humans responses to environmental conditions. That creates a sort of more complicated narrative where there are booms and busts and successive locations along the coast and they’re related to each other. And in some cases, people and equipment are moving between them, but they’re not necessarily resulting in a ghost town that’s totally abandoned at the end.

So the three cities that I look at are Chimbote, Iquique, and Talcahuano, and each of these cities sort of began in a boom stage but also eventually continue to produce fishmeal to various degrees so they’ve all managed it in a slightly different way. But it’s not a sort of a simple story where first it was booming, and Peru and then collapsed and move to somewhere else. It’s sort of boom and bust cycles.

Well, and that’s certainly a tale for our age: the population gets larger, and we are looking for new ways to figure out how to feed everybody.

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