CALLAO, Peru (AP) -- The ocean off Peru boasts the world's richest fishing grounds, but Taurino Querevalu is returning to port empty again after a hunt for Peruvian anchovy, cursing his empty nets and an increasingly stingy sea.
A little more than a decade ago, Querevalu's 8-ton wooden boat rarely returned with an empty hold as it does on this day motoring back to Lima's port of Callao, the low-slung clouds above as gray as the sea mirroring them.
"There used to be fish for everybody," the 48-year-old trawler captain laments, leaning on the rail as a stiff breeze buffets his leathery brow. "You'd run into immense schools."
Querevalu's frustrated search for the silvery, stiletto-sized fish reflects a voracious, growing global demand for the protein-rich fish meal, and oil, into which nearly Peru's entire anchovy catch is converted. It also reflects unremitting cheating by commercial fleets on quotas and other regulations designed to protect the species.
Not only has overfishing of the Peruvian anchovy, or anchoveta, battered the industry that makes Peru far and away the world's No. 1 fish meal exporter, it has also raised alarm about food security in a nation that had long been accustomed to cheap, abundant seafood.
The drop in the anchoveta population has over the years affected the food chain, as stocks of hundreds of bigger wild fish and marine animals that eat it have also thinned.
Anchoveta thrives in the cold, plankton-saturated Humboldt Current along the coast of Peru and Chile and accounts for about a third of the global fishmeal industry used to fatten farmed seafood and livestock, from salmon in Norway to pigs in China. Like other small "forage fish" that account for more than a third of the world's wild ocean fish catch, nearly the entire anchoveta catch gets ground up into feed and rendered into oil.
It is the "the most heavily exploited fish in world history," according to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization.
Peru's government ordered deep cuts in what the country's 1,200-boat commercial fleet could catch in October after anchoveta stocks plummeted to about 5 million metric tons -- at the low end of what fishermen would bring in during previous years. While the small fish reproduce rapidly, their overall population is now less than half its volume a decade ago, said Patricia Majluf, a top Peruvian marine scientist.
The government slashed the permitted commercial catch by two-thirds and set rules meant to put more fish on dinner tables in a country whose rural provinces are afflicted by some of the world's highest rates of child malnourishment.
Yet the commercial fleet has continued to cheat, said Paul Phumpiu, Peru's vice minister of fisheries.
"They have no social conscience," he told reporters Monday in announcing new fines of nearly $3 million on commercial companies for illegally harvesting more than 18,000 metric tons of juvenile anchoveta during the three-month fishing season that ended Jan. 31.
"This resource isn't only for the enrichment of a few. It's for the benefit of all of us," Phumpiu said in an earlier interview. "It's a paradox, having a resource so rich that it feeds other parts of the planet but barely reaches Peruvians."
Peru's commercial fishing industry blames climatic problems for the anchoveta's slide. But independent experts say years of overfishing, lax enforcement and cheating on quotas and fines have hurt the population. They also accuse the industry of rampant underreporting of its catch and of endangering stocks by harvesting juveniles.
Majluf said a one-year fishing ban should be imposed to rebuild the population.
Officials balked at that idea, instead setting the lowest quota ever for the commercial trawler fleet at just 810,000 tons for the fishing season that just ended. The government will soon assess anchoveta stocks and determine the quota for the next, mid-year season.
Phumpiu said Peru also is boosting the number of its inspectors, from 60 to 260 to begin with, along the 1,860-mile (3,000-kilometer) coastline and increasing fines for unauthorized catches.
Skeptics doubt the new restrictions will work.
For one thing, an estimated 400,000 tons of anchoveta caught annually goes unreported. "That's the entire (annual) catch of Spain, or Italy," said Juan Carlos Sueiro, a Cayetano Heredia University economist. It's value: about $200 million.
There are also huge loopholes.
Anchoveta quotas only apply to boats in the commercial fleet that works within Peru's 200-mile territorial waters. Those vessels have been responsible for about 94 percent of the catch.
But when boat-by-boat quotas were imposed in 2008, trawlers under 32 tons were exempted. Unrestricted, their numbers swelled.