Quantcast

Can a Locavore Seafood Movement Save Chile’s Traditional Fishers?

Chile's small-scale fishers are squeezed, but a renewed interest in native foods offers hope. Claudio Almarza / Oceana

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

Three Fish

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.

Risky Business

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

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Offutt Air Force Base after flooding on March 17. U.S. Air Force / TSgt. Rachelle Blake

The historic flooding that devastated Nebraska last week has also submerged one third of an Air Force base, offering a further illustration of the threat posed to national security by climate change.

Read More Show Less
A regenerating stand of rainforest in northern Costa Rica. Matthew Fagan / CC BY-ND

By Matthew Fagan, Leighton Reid and Margaret Buck Holland

Tropical forests globally are being lost at a rate of 61,000 square miles a year. And despite conservation efforts, the global rate of loss is accelerating. In 2016 it reached a 15-year high, with 114,000 square miles cleared.

At the same time, many countries are pledging to restore large swaths of forests. The Bonn Challenge, a global initiative launched in 2011, calls for national commitments to restore 580,000 square miles of the world's deforested and degraded land by 2020. In 2014 the New York Declaration on Forests increased this goal to 1.35 million square miles, an area about twice the size of Alaska, by 2030.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Compassion Over Killing

By Cheryl Leahy

Do you think almond milk comes from a cow named Almond? Or that almonds lactate? The dairy industry thinks you do, and that's what it's telling the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

For years, the dairy industry has been flexing its lobbying muscle, pressuring states and the federal government to restrict plant-based companies from using terms like "milk" on their labels, citing consumer confusion.

Read More Show Less

By Jeremy Deaton

A driver planning to make the trek from Denver to Salt Lake City can look forward to an eight-hour trip across some of the most beautiful parts of the country, long stretches with nary a town in sight. The fastest route would take her along I-80 through southern Wyoming. For 300 miles between Laramie and Evanston, she would see, according to a rough estimate, no fewer than 40 gas stations where she could fuel up her car. But if she were driving an electric vehicle, she would see just four charging stations where she could recharge her battery.

Read More Show Less
d3sign / Moment / Getty Images

By Kris Gunnars, BSc

Common sense should not be taken for granted when people are discussing nutrition.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
A fire erupted Sunday at a petrochemical plant in Deer Park, Texas. NowThis News / YouTube screenshot

By Andrea Germanos

A petrochemical plant near Houston continued to burn for a second day on Monday, raising questions about the quality and safety of the air.

The Deer Park facility is owned by Intercontinental Terminals Company (ITC), which said the fire broke out at roughly 10:30 a.m. Sunday. Seven tanks are involved, the company said, and they contain naptha, xylene, "gas blend stocks" and "base oil."

"It's going to have to burn out at the tank," Ray Russell, communications officer for Channel Industries Mutual Aid, which is aiding the response effort, said at a news conference. It could take "probably two days" for that to happen, he added.

Read More Show Less
Poppy superbloom in Lake Elsinore, Calfornia on March 13. cultivar413 / CC BY 2.0

The hillsides dyed orange with poppies may look like something out of a dream, but for the Southern California town of Lake Elsinore, that dream quickly turned into a nightmare.

The town of 66,000 people was inundated with around 50,000 tourists coming to snap pictures of the golden poppies growing in Walker Canyon as part of a superbloom of wildfires caused by an unusually wet winter, BBC News reported. The visitors trampled flowers and caused hours of traffic, The Guardian reported.

Read More Show Less
The Humane Society of the United States uncovered a one-year pesticide test on 36 beagles contracted by Dow AgroSciences at a Michigan lab. The Humane Society of the United States / YouTube screenshot

A controversial pesticide test that would have resulted in the deaths of 36 beagles has been stopped, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the company behind the test announced Monday. The announcement comes less than a week after HSUS made the test public when it released the results of an investigation into animal testing at Charles River Laboratories in Michigan.

"We have immediately ended the study that was the subject of attention last week and will make every effort to rehome the animals that were part of the study," Corteva Agriscience, the agriculture division of DowDupont, said in a statement announcing its decision.

Read More Show Less