Adapt or perish - climate change alters coastal fisheries and society in Peru

Researchers from Germany and Peru jointly develop new adaptation strategies to the impacts of climate change on the Humboldt upwelling area off the Peruvian coast

The sea off the west coast of South America is one of the most productive fishing grounds of the world. In the Humboldt Current system, upwelling of cold and nutrient rich waters stimulate the growth of plankton that in turn serve as food for commercially exploited fish species, such as anchovy or mahi-mahi. Changes in the ecosystem due to increasing ocean warming does not only have an impact on the health of the oceans and fish populations in the region, but also on the worldwide fish and seafood market. In the Humboldt-Tipping project funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), scientists from Germany and Peru led by Kiel University have comprehensively investigated these relationships in the Humboldt upwelling area off the coast of Peru for four years and developed adaptation strategies together with local user groups to the changing environmental conditions. The research and its results from the first phase are published in form of a virtual exhibition that can be visited online.

Climate change has a direct impact on one of the most important fish areas in the world. Ecological, social and economic dynamics are closely linked in the Humboldt upwelling area like in hardly any other region on earth. Around eight per cent of the global catch of marine resources come from the coasts of Peru. Around 80 per cent of the total catch is exported as fishmeal and fish oil as main ingredients of aquaculture feed, for example to China and Norway.

Declining fish stocks cause local and global impacts

"In particular, the consequences for the global fishing economy are difficult to address without adaptation strategies that are both co-developed and subsequently supported by local user groups," says Professor Marie-Catherine Riekhof from the Center for Ocean and Society of the Kiel Marine Science (KMS) research priority area at Kiel University and coordinator of the Humboldt-Tipping project, which explicitly takes a holistic and transdisciplinary approach. Together with Peruvian scientific partners, researchers from Hamburg, Bremen and Kiel have built up a network of fishers, associations, municipalities and user groups from aquaculture and tourism and have developed methods with them on site to be able to adapt to the changing conditions. The initial basis for the work was the analysis of potential effects of a change in the nitrogen cycle in the Humboldt upwelling area. Inorganic nitrogen is a key nutrient that limits the growth of phytoplankton in many marine ecosystems.

"However, our model analyses show that changes in plankton have far less impact on the productivity of fish stocks than expected. Rather, the results suggest that offspring survival and changes in the habitat itself have a major impact on stock fluctuations," says Dr. Mariana Hill from the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, who had been working on possible biogeochemical tipping points in the Humboldt-Tipping project.

Ecosystem models were also created and climate projections were analyzed to make predictions about tipping points and future climate conditions. The projections show possible collapse or decline of some key species such as anchovy, but also steady changes such as near-surface warming in the Humboldt upwelling area.

No signs of abrupt habitat tipping points - adaptation is still possible

"We currently see no signs of tipping points of the entire ecosystem," says Dr. Giovanni Romagnoni from the Center for Ocean and Society of Kiel Marine Science (KMS). "The rather gradual decline in species diversity suggests that new species may be able to occupy the niches of those species that are predicted to collapse due to climate change, and thus take over their ecological role," says marine biologist Romagnoni, who recently moved from the Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research to Kiel University.

In order to investigate the effects of different management options for dealing with tipping points, one of the work packages in Humboldt-Tipping created a conceptual framework, the so-called "Window of Tipping Point Analysis (WTPA)". With this, the different stakeholders can explore their options to act. "Good institutional frameworks can play a decisive role in mitigating negative consequences or even turning them into positive ones. In the second phase of Humboldt-Tipping, we want to concretize these adaptation strategies to the changing environmental conditions," says project leader Riekhof.

Virtual exhibition and educational platform share research results

The results of the project were prepared in a virtual exhibition. In a 2.5 D-model, life on the Humboldt Current and the various habitats in the ocean and on land can be explored. The exhibition aims to create a feeling for the complexity of this significant system and shows how closely we, in Germany and Europe, are connected to the upwelling area of the Humboldt Current off the coast of Peru. Visitors will have the opportunity to gain a comprehensive overview of the area and its importance on a global scale. Those who want to learn more will also find further material on the exhibition topics, such as fisheries, sustainability, climate change and the Humboldt Current itself. The virtual exhibition is online and freely accessible as a browser version in English, Spanish and German and was presented to the public for the first time at the Kieler Woche in northern Germany at the exhibition area of Kiel University.

About Humboldt-Tipping

The project "Socio-ecologic Tipping Point of the Northern Humboldt Current Upwelling System, Economic Repercussions and Governance Strategies, short Humboldt-Tipping" is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and is part of the Bio-Tip call of the FONA Program - Research for Sustainable Development. Humboldt-Tipping involves scientists from Kiel University, the Universities of Hamburg and Bremen, the Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Research in Bremen and the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel as well as partners from the Instituto del Mar del Perú (IMARPE) and the Group for the Analysis of Development (GRADE), Lima, Peru.


Group picture
© Frederike Tirre, Kiel University

Together and in dialogue with local user groups, researchers from Kiel, Hamburg and Bremen have developed new adaptation strategies to climate change with their Peruvian scientific partners in the Humboldt-Tipping project.

Fishing boats on a water surface, city silhouette in the background
© Frederike Tirre, Kiel University

Artisanal fishing off Peru's coast: The Humboldt Current provides an abundant food supply for numerous fish species, including the anchovy.

Graphic illustration
© Frederike Tirre, Kiel University

The results of four years of research in the Humboldt Tipping project were prepared in a virtual exhibition and educational platform.

Publications from the project (excerpt)

Riekhof, M.-C., Kluger, L. C., Salvatteci, R., Siebert, L., & Voss, R. (2022). To tip or not to tip: The Window of Tipping Point Analysis for social-ecological systems. Natural Resource Modeling, 35, e12357. DOI: 10.1111/nrm.12357

Hill Cruz, M., Frenger, I., Getzlaff, J., Kriest, I., Xue, T., Shin, Y.-J. Understanding the drivers of fish variability in an end-to-end model of the Northern Humboldt Current System. DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolmodel.2022.110097

Salvatteci, R., Schneider, R.R., Galbraith, E., Field, D., Blanz, T., Bauersachs, T., Crosta, X., Martinez, P., Echevin, V., Scholz, F., Bertrand, A., 2022. Smaller fish species in a warm and oxygen-poor Humboldt Current system. Science 375, 101–104. DOI: 10.1126/science.abj0270

Scientific Contact:

Prof. Dr. Marie-Catherine Riekhof
Director Center for Ocean and Society (CeOS)
Kiel Marine Science (KMS)
Kiel University


Press Contact:
Friederike Balzereit
Science Communication Kiel Marine Science (KMS), CAU