June 12, 2020
CEO Note: In conversation with Liesbeth van der Meer, Oceana’s leader in Chile, on victories and facing COVID-19
BY: Andy Sharpless
Oceana campaigns in eight countries and the European Union to save the oceans and feed the world. While we share a common goal, our countries are unique in their ecosystems and their fisheries. And Chile, where Oceana has worked since 2003, is a great example – it’s a productive coastal country with some the world’s most biodiverse ocean territories. Below you will find a conversation I recently had with the Vice President of Oceana in Chile, Liesbeth van der Meer, about Oceana’s long list of victories and the current challenges Chile faces from COVID-19.
Andrew Sharpless: In 7 years of working for Oceana, what has kept you inspired to keep protecting the oceans?
Liesbeth van der Meer: When I first started in my career, I was a scientist that did stock assessments for fisheries. I studied at University of British Columbia, so I always heard stories from Daniel Pauly (member of Oceana’s Board of Directors) about Oceana.
When I came back to Chile and joined Oceana, I faced the real world. The industry, the artisanal fishermen, and the theory collided into this very unknown world of practicality and how the model of fisheries recovery actually works on the ground. Eventually, I started going to local communities of fishermen to see how we could solve the issue of illegal fishing together.
That’s when I started to see these human beings who love what they do. They are passionate about getting up at 4:00 in the morning and going to fish. Sometimes they don’t catch anything. But just the act of going fishing at 4:00 in the morning, coming back at 10:00, selling the fish, and then going home, I think that’s what really taught me how important it is to be a scientist, but also to understand that there is this human side to fisheries that is very beautiful in Chile.
Being in the field, that’s what I love most – working with the communities. And getting laws passed with the support of these communities. You know you’re helping them to actually fulfill their dreams of protection and of sustainable work. Them knowing that their kids will be fishermen, that there will still be fish left for them, I think that’s why I am passionate about continuing this work.
AS: How important are the oceans to life in Chile?
LV: In Chile, we have one of the longest coastlines in the world, it’s 6,435 kilometers. To get to the very north of Chile to the very south by plane takes almost seven hours. We have over 3 million square kilometers of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). From the north to the south of Chile, you have eight different ecosystems where you will find different fish, different fisheries, and different ways of life.
20 percent of Chile’s population lives in coastal communities that are very different from north to south. So, the ocean is important for our economy, but it’s also important because it is a part of our culture.
AS: What are some of Oceana’s biggest successes in Chile?
LV: Our habitat protection campaigns have been very successful. We established no-take zones in 25% of our EEZ. We created several marine parks to protect fisheries that are economically important for local communities and their livelihoods, including fishing and tourism. These include Salas y Gómez Marine Park in 2010, Nazca-Desventuradas Marine Park in 2015, which protected nearly 300,000 square kilometers, and Juan Fernandez in 2018, which protected another 285,000 square kilometers.
As part of our fisheries recovery campaigns, we’ve banned shark finning, protected all seamounts from bottom trawling, and recovered fisheries by changing the fisheries law to require that all quotas have to be established by scientific recommendation, which wasn’t the case before.
In our campaigns to stop pollution, we are the only international NGO in Chile that has fought big mining companies. We have stopped the establishment of at least five coal power plants in areas that we determined should be protected. We have stopped mining projects too. And this is all with the support of local communities. They raised the question with us: ‘we’re fishermen, and we want to remain being fishermen. Do we think that this project could harm our way of living?’ We evaluated this question with science, we said yes, and then we fought. We’ve been fighting one project for more than 10 years in La Higuera. We have also closed the only mine tailing site where waste was being deposited directly into the ocean.
For years now, we have successfully opposed salmon aquaculture in Chilean Patagonia. We have been able to safeguard the last pristine area in Patagonia and keep it free from harmful salmon aquaculture.
AS: Why do you think Oceana has been so successful in Chile?
LV: We have built up a lot of credibility over the years. Many of the NGOs that work in Chile are either financed by the industry or their goals are very limited. We don’t go for the low hanging fruit. We go for the projects where people say, “there’s no way you’re going to win that.” And people know that.
And we fight these battles alongisde the communities. We include the communities. We’ve been in Chile for 17 years, and we have learned throughout this process what to do and what not to do. That level of experience has also made us very good at what we do. We know how to talk to politicians and to governments. We have always been nonpartisan, and we have always stuck to science. Basically, we do a lot of the work that the government doesn’t want to do. We’re taking that burden, but that also has gained support and respect from the community.
AS: How is the coronavirus impacting Chile and the fishing industry?
LV: What we have seen so far is that the industrial fisheries still fish just like they used to, but it is the artisanal fishermen who are suffering. Our country has a big gap in education and in access to health care. The ones who are suffering are those who are the poorest and live in the most vulnerable communities.
COVID-19 has largely been concentrated in the capital of Chile – half of our population lives here. So communities further out from the capital haven’t been as impacted by COVID-19, but have been impacted economically because they can’t sell their fish.
While the government has been working, many projects, like the ban on single-use plastics, have been postponed. But our priority right now is to understand what is going on in the communities we work with and providing them with support.
AS: In what ways is Oceana adapting its campaigns in Chile during the pandemic?
LV: We’ve found new ways to communicate like Instagram, and we’re doing a lot of webinars on economic recovery. We are presenting economic recovery measures for the government that are centered in the local economies. Our best chance to recover from the economic impacts of COVID-19 is for the government to not invest money in polluting companies and non-green companies. The best way is to support local economies, to support tourism, and to support artisanal fisheries. For example, we are proposing more logical ways of transporting fish, including freezing fish from some regions to be transported into Santiago. We need that food supply. We are expanding on a plan for the government to fulfill local development. This has been done in Europe for example, after World War II, where they focused on investing in the growth of smaller cities, and that’s what we are pushing for with other NGOs.
AS: What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your time leading Chile’s office?
LV: I think the hardest challenge was learning how to work with politicians and ensuring science is part of the decision-making when working with the government and passing laws. We also need to communicate. That’s the most important lesson I’ve learned. Whatever work we do, if it stays on your computer, it has no value. People need to understand, and this is what we call giving the democracy of knowledge. This is what we do with communities. The best tool you can give them is knowledge and science so they can fight for themselves and make their own decisions when projects are going to hurt the way they’re living or their resources. You can also give them a lot of knowledge to improve tourism and to improve fisheries. I think that is the hardest thing, but the most rewarding thing that we do.
To learn more about Oceana’s campaigns in Chile, visit chile.oceana.org