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
<div id="7aab6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4bff71c40172c15736f73fe73ed18078"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1330967606585593857" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Today, I’m announcing the first members of my national security and foreign policy team. They will rally the world… https://t.co/bAisIQk5P6</div> — Joe Biden (@Joe Biden)<a href="https://twitter.com/JoeBiden/statuses/1330967606585593857">1606162380.0</a></blockquote></div>
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By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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