Sustainable fishing in Chile | WWF

Sustainable fishing in Chile

Posted on
02 October 2014
The Don Luciano, a weather-beaten 45-foot fishing boat, motors out of Cocholgüe harbor in the early morning darkness. Behind the vessel, the houses of the village spill down the steep hillside toward the rocky harbor, where a narrow beach is lined by brightly painted boats in various states of repair. Cocholgüe, a cove on Chile’s central coast, is home to roughly 2,000 fishermen and their families. As Captain Fabian Rodriguez steers, his crew of six snoozes in cramped bunks despite the deafening diesel engine. The Don Luciano is one of the larger examples of Chile’s 9,300 artisanal fishing boats, which brought in 1.3 million tons of seafood in 2012.

The crew members emerge onto the rolling deck with the rising sun and pull on bright orange overalls and jackets and turquoise gloves. A beach ball-sized float marks the first set of gillnets, which are 200 feet long and suspended 10 feet above the seafloor. A muscular choreography begins: two men pull up the nylon nets, using a motorized winch when arm strength isn’t enough; two more disentangle hake that have been snagged by their gills (hence the term “gillnet”); and two coil the ropes and stack the empty nets. The piles of fish grow, but painfully slowly, as seagulls bob in the swells and pelicans glide past in military formation. When the process is finished two hours later, the men reset the nets and use buckets of seawater to sluice fish slime from the decks and each other. The next set of nets is even more disappointing, with gaping holes left by boat anchors, stiff currents, or maybe sea lions.

Rodriguez shakes his head as he steers toward home around noon. Today’s catch looks to be about 15 boxes, each holding 60 pounds of fish, which will earn each man about $10. Rodriguez, a fisherman for 20 years, remembers when an average haul was 30 to 40 boxes. “You very rarely had a small catch, but not now,” he says. “These last few years it’s been low.”

Chile´s seafood industry: 6th largest in the world

Chile’s seafood industry, the sixth largest in the world, includes everything from tiny fishing boats and huge industrial trawlers to seething fish farms and aseptic factories. It’s a microcosm of the problems and potential solutions facing global fisheries, as stocks face collapse even as every year brings millions more mouths to feed. But with help from WWF—and with a newly amended fishery law, for which WWF gave input—the country is edging toward sustainability. “We’re on the right track,” says Ricardo Bosshard, WWF’s Chile Director. “But we know we’re on a journey of 10 years, maybe more.” Three billion people rely on seafood, both wild-caught and farmed, as their main source of animal protein. The industry supports 200 million jobs, making seafood one of the world’s biggest traded food commodities. But that bounty has come at a price. Over 85% of marine fish stocks are considered either fully exploited or overfished, and more than one in five fisheries has collapsed. Climate change is altering the distribution of fish by acidifying the oceans and raising water temperatures. With more than 9 billion people estimated to crowd the planet by 2050, the continuing role of fish as food is becoming less and less secure.

Sandwiched in large part between the Andes and the Pacific, Chile is a coastline as much as a country, with more oceanfront real estate than the east and west coasts of the US combined. Seafood is the country’s third-largest export, but after decades of mismanagement, over two-thirds of Chile’s commercial bony-fish stocks are currently overexploited or collapsed, says Mauricio Galvez, WWF Chile’s Fisheries Programme coordinator. “It is not only an environmental or economic issue. There are thousands of vulnerable people who directly depend on such stocks.” The decline is in evidence in places like Cocholgüe. Antonio Bustos, president of the local fishermen’s union, is a bear of a man with a handshake toughened by decades at sea. “I’m a dignified man,” he says. “I don’t want to live off of handouts. I want to work and earn my money.” But it’s getting harder and harder to make ends meet, he says, with prices falling and the fish getting smaller and harder to find every year. “Our kids don’t want to be fishermen anymore.”

Many artisanal fishermen blame large industrial vessels (defined as boats more than 60 feet long) for the dwindling catches. They say these big boats fish indiscriminately beyond about five nautical miles out—but still within the historical artisanal fishing grounds—and misreport their catch. In 2012, 175 registered industrial vessels caught nearly as much as Chile’s entire artisanal fleet. Unregulated artisanal fishing is also a problem, says Bustos. Illegally caught hake sell for roughly $10 per box versus the $20-$30 that legal fishermen have to charge to cover costs. “Our legal catch is better-quality, bigger fish,” says Bustos. But given that price competition, law-abiding fishermen struggle to make a profit. On top of that are the fishing quotas the government instituted in 2001 to try and save the country’s crashing stocks. “The quotas are so small you can’t make a living,” Bustos says—and some fishermen simply ignore them. Meanwhile, the fish keep getting smaller. Over the past decade, the median size for mature hake has reportedly dropped from 14.5 inches to 11 inches. “Twenty or 30 fish used to fill a box,” Bustos says. “Now it takes 80 or 90. One hake fillet used to cover a plate, and now you need two.” Bustos says it would help if the government promoted higher hake prices and provided fishermen with gear to catch different species in different seasons. Having their own fish processing plant, he suggests, would help the residents of Cocholgüe and other caletas(local associations of fishermen) connect directly with international markets, as industrial operations do.

Adressing Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing (IUU)

Dante Queirolo of the Pontifical Catholic University School of Marine Sciences in Valparaiso agrees that the hake fishery is in bad shape, and that illegal and unreported fishing is a serious problem. “People cheat,” he says. “We need to recognize that the monitoring system has failed.” To address this, the Chilean National Fisheries Service (Sernapesca) launched a new landing certification program this year to record how many fish are being caught by artisanal boats over 40 feet long.

The new landing certifications are part of an overhaul of Chile’s national fishing law, which went into effect in February 2013. WWF advocated for improvements in the law that focus on conservation and sustainability, including setting up legally binding fishery recovery and management plans, and using a transparent, science-backed process to set the yearly quotas.

One of the best places to find fish for domestic consumption is in Santiago’s fish market, built in 1996 with a grant from Japan. It’s the largest of its kind in the country, with over 1,000 tons of seafood sold every month, and it rumbles with activity starting well before dawn. Burly workers unload boxes of fish from trucks as vendors sell coffee and snacks out of shopping carts. Early morning buyers stroll between stalls looking for deals on every kind of seafood imaginable: salmon and giant squid, crabs and elephant fish, a whole octopus here, half a swordfish there. The smell is overwhelming, almost a visible haze in the air.
As the morning progresses, more shoppers arrive to haggle over ingredients for dinner or linger at a lunch counter over a thick bowl of caldillo de congrio, a traditional Chilean conger eel stew that’s known locally as a hangover cure.

The market reflects a vibrant slice of Chile’s economy, which in turn is only part of a much larger picture. Together, Chile, Peru and Argentina provide about 9% of the world’s total catch in two main categories: whitefish such as Patagonian toothfish (aka Chilean sea bass) and species low on the food chain like Peruvian anchoveta, used for fish oil and animal feed. Many of these stocks are in bad shape, which is why WWF helped establish the Southern Cone Alliance, a marine initiative aimed at long-term sustainability, in 2013.

WWF marine and fisheries offices in Chile and Peru, together with Argentina’s Fundación Vida Silvestre, a partner organisation, are collaborating to ensure that the region’s fish are harvested at biologically safe and sustainable levels, without undue environmental impacts. The goal is to have three-quarters of priority fisheries certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) by 2020.

Julian Smith, WWF-Chile
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