Can a Locavore Seafood Movement Save Chile’s Traditional Fishers?
By Allison Guy
When Carlos Castro was young, he didn't plan on following his dad and granddad into fishing. Like a lot of teenagers in the 1970s, Castro dreamt of kung fu. Bruce Lee was more his style than the family business.
Castro swam laps to shape up back then, dodging boats in the bracingly cold bay of Valparaiso, a port city in central Chile. Forty years later, he still plies those waters, driving one of the boats he used to swim past. Castro, a youthful 56 in white trainers and Nike gear, became a fisherman after all.
Every morning, Castro unloads his catch at Caleta Membrillo, a fishing dock in Valparaiso's iconic port. The waterfront there is lined with seafood restaurants and a fish market that buzzes with activity beginning well before dawn. This city may look like a mecca for local, artisanal seafood, but looks can deceive.
In truth, Chileans don't eat much wild fish from Chile anymore. Even in Valparaiso's waterfront restaurants, there's no guarantee that what you're eating was locally caught, let alone within a day's boat trip of the city.
A small but growing locavore movement is changing things little by little, and reviving Chile's long-neglected ties to native seafood. After decades of decline, renewed interest in responsible, boat-to-plate seafood could be a game changer for the country's struggling artisanal fishers.
Valparaiso sprawls across the hills behind Caleta Membrillo's dock. Allison Guy / Oceana
Up a steep hill overlooking Valparaiso's bay, snapshots of local fishers, including Castro, decorate the walls of the new restaurant Tres Peces, or Three Fish. One warm March evening, curious diners trickled in during the restaurant's soft opening.
Meyling Tang, one of Tres Peces' three owners, spoke over appetizers of sea urchin, octopus and pebre, Chiles' ubiquitous salsa-like condiment, here peppered with diced bull kelp. The inspiration for the restaurant was simple, she said. "There was nowhere good to eat seafood in Valparaiso."
Tres Peces serves fish from 40 artisanal fishing cooperatives across Chile, and guarantees a market for the less-popular species that wholesale buyers often turn down. In turn, the restaurant gets top-quality products that haven't been subject to Chile's notoriously unsanitary and crime-ridden supply chain.
It's risky to open a restaurant that only sells seafood from small-scale Chilean fishers, Tang admitted. For a country that has more sea than land, wild seafood is surprisingly unpopular in Chile.
The country has 4,200 kilometers (approximately 2,610 miles) of coastline, and is the fifth-most productive fishing country in the world. Chileans, however, eat just 13 kilos (approximately 29 pounds) of seafood a year, 7 kilos below the global average. Most fish, wild or farmed, is exported, or is ground up as feed supplements for the country's enormous salmon farms. Imported tilapia has supplanted native hake as a favorite fish for Chileans.
It wasn't always like this. Chileans have rich culinary traditions centered on the hundred-plus edible species in the nation's waters, from seaweed and snow crab to "piure," a bottom-dwelling invertebrate that looks like a cross between a human heart and a moss-covered rock.
Overfishing takes a big share of the blame for the drop-off in wild seafood consumption. As hake and other popular species declined, their prices shot up. Availability is also an issue. Outside of coastal towns and specialized seafood markets, it can be hard to find any fish that didn't come from a farm.
Tang and her colleagues at Tres Peces are longtime advocates for sustainable small-scale fishing in Chile. The foundation they work with, Cocinamar, supports sustainable fishing and seafood consumption. "The restaurant was a chance for us to put our money where our mouth is," she said. It also serves as a community space.
Fishermen like Castro come to give talks about their lives. Events bring free local seafood to Valaparaiso's streets. It's a chance not just to connect diners to the source of their seafood, but to deepen fishermen's pride in their work. Tres Peces is "not only a restaurant," Tang said. "We teach about responsible fishing. We tell stories."
For Gustavo Sandoval, a chef from Puerto Varas in southern Chile, the biggest hurtle to a local seafood movement is public perception. There are plenty of affordable Chilean fish that go ignored. A lack of promotion and education, Sandoval explained, means that people think fish is prohibitively expensive.
Sandoval is no stranger to promoting Chile's fish. He's a mainstay in local and national seafood fairs, and appeared four times on the cooking show Reyes del Mar, or Kings of the Sea, on the Chilean public television station TVN. Next year, Sandoval plans to open a sea-focused sandwich shop, with most of the fish sourced from artisanal Chilean fishers.
All the fish-focused effort from chefs across Chile is having an effect, Sandoval thinks. Things are changing, he said, but slowly.
Piure, true to its looks, can be an acquired taste. Claudio Almarza / Oceana
The Imitation Game
As of late May, things had changed in at least one place. Tres Peces was open full-time and business was brisk. A critic for the prominent newspaper La Tercera called it one of the year's best new restaurants.
Promisingly, other chefs had approached Tres Peces asking for its seafood suppliers—a trade secret Tang was happy to share. "With one restaurant, you can't make a change," she said. "We're just a pilot. We hope others will copy us."
Since Tres Peces opened, Castro has seen an important change too. He used to go home after selling his morning's catch. Now, he has a second shift delivering to Tres Peces and other restaurants in Valparaiso. The extra work means he's earning a better and more stable living.
There's still a long way to go. Fish populations are slipping, Castro said, and artisanal fishermen feel squeezed by Chile's wealthy industrial fishers, who have larger, more powerful ships and a bigger share of the country's fish quota. Young people by and large have turned away from a life at sea, leaving older fishers worried for the future of their way of life.
But becoming a bit of a local fishing celebrity has given Castro a fresh outlook on his work. He's not a kung fu master, but there are some perks to the job. He loves the sea and the contact with nature, he said. "Every day is an adventure."
Hand-gathered bull kelp, or cochayuyu, is a traditional ingredient in stews and salads. Claudio Almarza / Oceana
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.