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Dispatch from Chile: Sustaining a Way of Life and the Sea that Feeds It

February 14, 2019
Along Chile’s rugged Southern coast, indigenous fishing communities learn to navigate a course to sustainability.

This past month, with great excitement, I had the opportunity to travel in Chile with Walton Family Foundation partner, Costa Humboldt, which has been a trailblazer in the movement to bring the country's fisheries to sustainability.

This is all in the wake of groundbreaking national legislation to modernize the country’s enforcement systems to support the reduction of illegal fishing practices nationwide.

My time spent with the Mapuche communities—the Manquemapu and Lafken Mapu people—was humbling and hard to put into words, and I hope that I can share my experience through these photos.

With resources and science provided by Costa Humboldt, indigenous communities in the country’s remote South are being provided with the tools and training on how to manage and sustain the marine ecosystem they have fished for generations.

The life of a subsistence fisherman is seldom easy. But the families that hosted our group were exceedingly generous, kind and filled with a zest for life, eager to make the most of whatever bounty the sea hands them next.

The Humboldt Current, pictured above, is responsible for the striking biodiversity along South America’s western edge. Extending from southern Chile to the Galápagos Islands along the equator, the current sustains one of the most productive fisheries in the world. Its cold, nutrient-rich waters account for roughly 20% of seafood caught worldwide.

The current also supports the region’s diverse and prolific seabird and marine mammal populations, from penguins and kelp gulls to marine otters and bottlenose dolphins.

We traveled to San Pedro Bay in the Los Lagos region. Characterized by steep cliffs, rocky outcroppings and stunning vistas, life on the water here, even in the hemisphere’s summer, can be rough and bone-chillingly cold. Collectively, the villages we visited are home to fewer than 1,000 people, 90 percent of whom are indigenous.

Here, Javier of Costa Humboldt joins Nicole, a talented local fisherwoman from the Lafken Mapu community, as she works to distract a hungry colony of sea lions, known to steal fish straight from the line.

Since 2018, the indigenous communities of San Pedro Bay have legally administered over 44 square miles of Marine Coastal Areas of Indigenous People, designated zones reserved for the traditional use of these villages. Costa Humboldt is working with these communities to help them continue to diversify and expand the marine resources they responsibly manage, through practices like rotating fishing areas and tossing back catch that has not yet reached maturity.

Additionally, Costa Humboldt is collecting data on daily fish catch to further hone their recommendations for management of the fisheries.

Here, Nicole and another fisherman make an impressive haul of Sierra, using only a simple hand line and copper lure.

Due largely to mismanagement and illegal fishing, 60% of Chile’s fisheries are currently overexploited or collapsed. Thankfully, new legislation has modernized the country’s National Fisheries and Aquaculture Service, known as Sernapesca.

The law now requires traceability for all fisheries from “boat to plate,” makes illegal fishing and underreporting a felony, and requires satellite tracking data on fleets to be made public, among other advancements.

Among the villages, the day’s catch is often shared with families whose boats didn’t go out that day, either due to poor weather conditions or the high cost of fuel. Most of the fish caught is locally consumed in part due to the area’s remote location and lack of cold storage.

The shellfish trade is more lucrative, and sea urchin from San Pedro Bay often travels as far as Japan. Costa Humboldt is working to expand market opportunities for the villages, looking for new distribution channels that pay fair market value—leading to higher incomes and reduced fishing effort. Here, a local fisherman “hookah” dives for shellfish in the icy waters of the bay, a dangerous practice that involves sucking air through a surface hose.

The families we met with are excited and hopeful for the future. The support they are receiving from Costa Humboldt and the Walton Family Foundation has let them know that others share their commitment to ensuring their way of life is not marginalized or forgotten, but instead celebrated and supported.

With ongoing support, the indigenous people of San Pedro Bay are helping to reverse the collapse of the Humboldt fishery, critical not only to their way of life, but to the rich and biodiverse ecosystem it sustains.

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