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Oceana Magazine Spring 2013: Chile’s Sea Change

Sealife in Chile

By Peter Brannen

In just one year, everything has changed about how Chile catches fish.

A year ago the fishing industry could write its own rules, exploiting once abundant fisheries to near ruin while destroying unseen wonders with destructive fishing gear unchecked.

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Now, after years of campaign work by Oceana and a historic vote by the Chilean Congress at the end of 2012, the seventh largest fishing power in the world will adopt one of the most forward-thinking, scientific fishing management plans ever proposed.

Chile’s slender physique, cramped by the Andes on one side and the Pacific on the other, is instantly recognizable on a map. But its geography also includes a constellation of volcanic islands off its shores, from the mythic Easter Island, with its iconic, inscrutable statues, to the Juan Fernandez Islands, where the 18th century exploits of a Scottish shipwreck survivor would inspire Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Less well known, and perhaps even more remote, are the Desventuradas and the moonscape of Salas y Gomez, a barren spit of land 250 miles east of Easter Island. But these islands are only the visible, surface-breaching tops of a mountain range of underwater peaks known as seamounts.

Due to their inaccessibility, seamounts garner little attention in the wider world, certainly nothing on par with the media coverage afforded to coral reefs or rainforests. But in terms of biodiversity they are nearly unmatched. Until now most of Chile’s seamounts were unprotected, and many, such as those around Juan Fernandez, were subject to bottom trawling, a practice in which enormous nets kept open by doors each weighing several tons ravage the seafloor. Before they could even be studied, centuries old coral gardens supporting a rainbow of marine life, from Galapagos sharks to butterfly fish, were obliterated in moments.

Now, all 118 of Chile’s seamounts will be closed to trawling as a precaution. It’s an area equal to more than 57,915 square miles.

Vice President of Oceana for South America, Alex Munoz, has been at the forefront of the push for the new universal protections for seamounts, which have no precedent anywhere else in the world.

“The country has adopted a precautionary approach where first we presume that the seamounts are valuable. This is the most important restriction to bottom trawling that has ever been passed in Chile,” he said.

But the new law does not stop at protecting seamounts. On-board scientific observers will be required on all Chilean trawlers to identify other vulnerable marine ecosystems. Those observers have the authority to stop a trawler from fishing in an area and order it to move on until the area can be studied in full if it seems ecologically significant.

punta de choros

If protection to vulnerable marine habitats were all that was accomplished by the new fisheries law it would have been a landmark achievement. But the new fisheries law also overhauls how Chile decides how much fish it catches, putting scientific concerns above industry ones, and putting an end to overfishing in what had been essentially a lawless commons in the Pacific.

“We’ve moved from a time when fisheries management was up to the discretion of the fishing industry to one in which the country has embraced a science-based approach,” says Muñoz.

A report prepared by Oceana and delivered to Chilean lawmakers outlined the scope of the problem that Chilean fisheries faced. Three of Chile’s major fisheries, anchovy, hake and jack mackerel, had seen a 95 percent drop in abundance in only 15 years and were being fished at levels that far exceeded scientific recommendations. For hake the situation was particularly dire: in the past decade it had been caught at levels 193 percent higher than was biologically safe.

Now, as a result of Oceana’s report and subsequent advocacy, catch limits will be determined according to the best science available. Fishing fleets will also be required to dramatically curtail the incidental capture and discarding of unwanted species, known as bycatch. Certain species, such as sea birds, marine mammals or turtles that are tangled up and injured in industry gear, will be required to be brought to on-land rehabilitation centers. This is a major development in a country where some fisheries have shocking amounts of bycatch. Chile’s swordfish fishery, for example, catches more sharks as bycatch than swordfish.

While the fishing industry fought the new law, it could end up working in their favor in the long run. As catches are brought back to within safe biological limits and stocks are given a chance to recover, the abundant schools of fish that once patrolled the coast could soon return. If the new fisheries law is implemented successfully, Chilean lawmakers foresee an end to the long decline of Chile’s most important fisheries sometime in 2015, at which point the stocks will begin to rebound.

Oceana played a central role in winning this remarkable victory for Chile’s oceans. “In only a few years of campaigning we’ve changed the face of the fishing legislation. We should all be proud of this,” says Munoz.