Walls of archaeological site Chan Chan, Peru. To the left, the inner walls of the temple follow the shape of fishing nets and depict seabirds at the bottom. To the right, external walls of the temple are decorated with fish. Photo credit: Rocio Lopez de la Lama.

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Marine artisanal fisheries (i.e. mainly using small boats and manually operated gear) are key for millions of people around the world as a source high-value food and cultural identity for coastal communities. Unfortunately, these fisheries are not politically or socially prioritized because they are seen as less economically important than industrial fisheries. This is particularly true for Peru, a Global South country with a long fisheries tradition (of at least 15,000 years), where seafood is part of people’s national identity and a source of pride. Peru is home to one of the six core civilizations of the world (Caral – Supe Civilization), but unlike other civilizations that grew based on agriculture, here fisheries played a key role.

Poor management and inadequate enforcement of artisanal fisheries are driving fishers into poverty while the stocks of fish and marine invertebrates that they target are declining. This scenario does not only jeopardize people’s livelihood and coastal communities’ food security, but also threatens to end a relationship between coastal Peruvians and the sea that extends across millennia. Thus, the objective of this research was to assess the transformative role of artisanal fisheries throughout 15,000 years to highlight their contributions for pushing Peruvians to deepening and expanding their relationships with marine and coastal ecosystems. For that, we conducted a literature review of archaeological data (both in English and Spanish), to find evidence of different marine-derived cultural ecosystem services along the Peruvian coast.

Our findings show that small-scale fisheries have provided a huge variety of cultural benefits, including key experiences, capabilities and identities that were vital for the continuing progress of coastal Peruvians. Some of these benefits include artistic inspiration, myths and rituals around marine deities, as well as traditional knowledge systems pertaining fishing, seafood processing and sailing. Based on these results we can conclude that small-scale fisheries are indeed a vital source of cultural identity and heritage values for coastal Peruvians. Thus, we suggest that small-scale fisheries should be protected through adequate management, seeking to sustain not only the resources that they target but also a source of identity and pride for coastal Peruvians.