Quantcast

Loved to Death: How Pirate Fishing Decimates Chile’s Favorite Fish

Oceans
Chile's once-common hake have been decimated by waves of legal and illegal fishing. Claudia Pool / Oceana

By Allison Guy

When Hugo Arancibia Farías was a child, his mother, like most mothers in central Chile, visited the weekly market to buy common hake, a white-fleshed relative of cod. She usually served it fried, Arancibia recalled with relish. "It was very cheap," he said, "and very popular."


Nowadays, hake is more expensive than beef. "It is too much for a family," said Arancibia, a fisheries biologist at the University of Concepción in central Chile. The reason is simple economics: The scarcer a resource, the more expensive. After a devastating population crash in the mid-2000s, Chile's once-common hake have yet to recover.

After years of blaming the collapse on an influx of predatory squid, Arancibia said, fisheries officials recently wised up to the real culprit: a vast tide of illegal fishing, much of it from artisanal fishers. If the illegal hake catch can't be reined in, experts say, Chile stands to lose its most important artisanal fishery, a cultural touchstone—and a pretty tasty fried fish.

Smaller Fish to Fry

Common hake, called merluza in Spanish, is to Chile what cod was to New England. But unlike hulking cod, hake's not much to look at, at least not anymore.

In the seafood market in Caleta Portales, a fish landing site in the central Chilean city of Valparaiso, hake are the little guys heaped among monstrous cusk eels and seabream as big and flat as dinner plates. The little hake have skinny, tapering bodies, big heads and bugged eyes—the result of gas expansion as the fish were yanked up quickly from ocean depths.

Hake weren't always so runty. They used to be bigger at maturity, by several centimeters. But nowadays, because of overfishing, there aren't many big fish left. Most hake in Chilean waters are juveniles, and the adults are getting smaller as they race to reproduce before they're caught.

The first ripples of overfishing stirred in the 1990s, as Chile poured its national energies into economic growth after the end of a two-decade military dictatorship. Fisheries policies encouraged the rapid expansion of an industrial, export-oriented fleet, with little thought to sustainability. "The attitude was to produce, to exploit, to overexploit," Arancibia said.

The free-for-all didn't last. In 2001, the government reigned in overfishing with a quota system, which set annual catch limits for hake, but unevenly split the number between industrial and artisanal fishing groups.

At first, it seemed like the quotas might work. In 2002, officials estimated that 1.55 million metric tons of hake swam in Chile's seas, a sharp jump from 600,000 metric tons the year before. An optimistic quota was set. But the next survey, in 2004, found just 270,000 tons of hake—20 percent of the fish's historical abundance.

"It was catastrophic," Arancibia said.

The missing million tons of hake, fisheries officials and many scientists said, had been sucked down by burgeoning populations of Humboldt squid, an abundant open-ocean predator that can weigh up to 90 pounds. Arancibia rejects that line of reasoning. The squid's other prey—mackerel, sardines, anchovies—hadn't plummeted along with hake. He places the blame solely on overfishing.

Since then, hake have barely improved, although you wouldn't know it by government catch limits. Fisheries officials upped the fish's quota in 2014, and again in 2017, turning a blind eye to the continued overfishing.

Small Boats, Big Woes

Hake is far from the only fish in trouble in Chile. Of the country's 43 fisheries, around half are struggling, with nine depleted or collapsed. To address this, Chile passed a sweeping fisheries law in 2012, which was implemented the following year.

"Quotas were cut in half from one day to the next, but the number of artisanal fishermen stayed the same," said Liesbeth van der Meer, the head of Oceana in Chile, who worked in the fisheries sector for 6 years. Restrictions on fishing might have been good for the hake if the law hadn't caused widespread resentment among small-scale fishers, or if its rules had been enforced.

Shockwaves from the quota cuts rippled up and down the coast. Politically powerful artisanal unions in places like Caleta Portales historically used strikes and protests to get their quotas upped. But the new fisheries law stipulated that quotas could only be set and changed by a scientific committee. Other fishers from smaller "caletas"—the beaches or docks where fish are offloaded—felt bewildered by seemingly sudden and unfair rules.

The quotas weren't divided evenly, either. Chile's 92,000 artisanal fishermen got 40 percent of the country's total catch. The industrial fleet, which is owned by just seven wealthy families, took the remaining 60 percent.

The law also carved up coastal waters into restricted blocks for each caleta. Fishermen from these beaches or docks had traditionally shared their fishing grounds during times of scarcity, said Eugenia Orgaz, a fisherwoman who's been netting hake and other species since the 1970s.

Orgaz lives in Caleta Horcon, a fishing village an hour north of Valparaiso, where draught horses are still used to haul boats from the water. But with the 2012 restrictions, the traditional spirit of cooperation suffered, Orgaz said. She suspects that big industry is trying to destroy fishers like her.

Eugenia Orgaz, on the far right, has been fishing since the 1970s. Claudia Pool / Oceana

Take It to the Limit

Orgaz respects hake catch limits and the yearly September closures for hake spawning, but other fishers are less scrupulous. Because hake remains Chile's most important artisanal fishery, many small-scale fishermen face a choice between earning money and breaking the law.

Given weak law enforcement and low fines for breaking the rules, it's not surprising that many choose the latter. While the artisanal fleet is assigned 40 percent of the hake quota, Arancibia estimates that they're landing 75 to 77 percent of the total catch.

"Illegal fishing sinks any recovery plans we have," van der Meer said. "It's gotten out of hand." Oceana is calling for better monitoring of illegal fishing in Chile, extending hake's closed season from one month to three and increasing the fish's minimum legal catch size.

Small-scale fishermen do share some responsibility for hake's sorry state, said Oscar Espinoza, the president of Chile's National Organization of Artisanal Fishers. But he has a different outlook on how to bring back his country's favorite fish.

Middlemen buy most artisanal hake, taking a big chunk of fishermen's potential profit, Espinoza said. They should be cut out of the supply chain, so fishermen can sell directly to restaurants, grocers and consumers. Chileans need to demand legal hake too, Espinoza added. Because illegal fish is cheaper, it creates unfair competition between fishermen who follow the rules and those who don't.

Espinoza would also like to see industrial hake fishing eliminated. Artisanal fishers have exclusive access to the zone from the shore out to 5 nautical miles; after that, they must compete with the industrial fleet. Their sophisticated gear and high catch levels are "in no way comparable" to those of their small-scale counterparts, Espinoza said. For him, the industrial fleet is "nearly totally" responsible for the hake crash.

Dying Traditions

After a collapse that's stretched on close to two decades, Arancibia doesn't have much faith in new laws. "We must change the culture of the fishers," he said. He declined to guess how. "It's an issue for the sociologists, the anthropologists," he said.

Arancibia might actually get his wish for a culture change, although not in a way that's likely to make anyone happy. The artisanal fleet is graying. Young people are lured away by better-paid, safer and more stable jobs.

Most fishers are in their 50s and 60s, a recent survey found, and don't want their kids to follow in their footsteps. Orgaz shares this outlook. She's happy that her son, who works in construction, didn't pursue the family business. "Your children don't belong to you," she said.

Chile's common hake are several centimeters shorter at maturity than they once were. Mauricio Altamirano / Oceana

As for Orgaz, she hopes to keep fishing until she dies. With her, and fishers like her, the traditions around hake and other native seafoods might disappear too.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

MStudioImages / E+ / Getty Images

By Jillian Kubala, MS, RD

Backpacking is an exciting way to explore the wilderness or travel to foreign countries on a budget.

Read More Show Less
Tim P. Whitby / 21st Century Fox / Getty Images

The beauty products we put on our skin can have important consequences for our health. Just this March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned that some Claire's cosmetics had tested positive for asbestos. But the FDA could only issue a warning, not a recall, because current law does not empower the agency to do so.

Michelle Pfeiffer wants to change that.

The actress and Environmental Working Group (EWG) board member was spotted on Capitol Hill Thursday lobbying lawmakers on behalf of a bill that would increase oversight of the cosmetics industry, The Washington Post reported.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
A protest march against the Line 3 pipeline in St. Paul, Minnesota on May 18, 2018. Fibonacci Blue / CC BY 2.0

By Collin Rees

We know that people power can stop dangerous fossil fuel projects like the proposed Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline in Minnesota, because we've proved it over and over again — and recently we've had two more big wins.

Read More Show Less
Scientists released a study showing that a million species are at risk for extinction, but it was largely ignored by the corporate news media. Danny Perez Photography / Flickr / CC

By Julia Conley

Scientists at the United Nations' intergovernmental body focusing on biodiversity sounded alarms earlier this month with its report on the looming potential extinction of one million species — but few heard their calls, according to a German newspaper report.

Read More Show Less
DoneGood

By Cullen Schwarz

Ethical shopping is a somewhat new phenomenon. We're far more familiar with the "tried and tested" methods of doing good, like donating our money or time.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Pixabay

Summer is fast approaching, which means it's time to stock up on sunscreen to ward off the harmful effects of sun exposure. Not all sunscreens are created equally, however.

Read More Show Less
Mark Wallheiser / Getty Images

The climate crisis is a major concern for American voters with nearly 40 percent reporting the issue will help determine how they cast their ballots in the upcoming 2020 presidential election, according to a report compiled by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Of more than 1,000 registered voters surveyed on global warming, climate and energy policies, as well as personal and collective action, 38 percent said that a candidate's position on climate change is "very important" when it comes to determining who will win their vote. Overall, democratic candidates are under more pressure to provide green solutions as part of their campaign promises with 64 percent of Democrat voters saying they prioritize the issue compared with just 34 percent of Independents and 12 percent of Republicans.

Read More Show Less
Flooding in Winfield, Missouri this month. Jonathan Rehg / Getty Images

President Donald Trump has agreed to sign a $19.1 billion disaster relief bill that will help Americans still recovering from the flooding, hurricanes and wildfires that have devastated parts of the country in the past two years. Senate Republicans said they struck a deal with the president to approve the measure, despite the fact that it did not include the funding he wanted for the U.S.-Mexican border, CNN reported.

"The U.S. Senate has just approved a 19 Billion Dollar Disaster Relief Bill, with my total approval. Great!" the president tweeted Thursday.

Read More Show Less