In Valparaiso, Chile, the fishermen gather in the pre-dawn hours at Caleta Portales to ready their boats for a morning at sea. It’s a quiet, bone-chilling October morning in this port city on Chile’s central coast, but by 4 a.m. the waterfront is alive with activity. A crane lifts the small vessels from their concrete dry dock and sets them gently into the water. Two-person crews load in supplies of fishing line, catch buckets and food provisions, before firing up outboard engines and heading out into the ocean darkness.
Chilean fishers have followed similar daily rituals for generations, supporting families and local economies in hundreds of small towns and villages.
About 90,000 people earn their living in Chile’s small-scale fishery and, each day, as many as 20,000 boats ply the waters along the country’s rugged 2,500-mile-long coast. But it’s a way of life that is increasingly at risk.
I traveled to Valparaiso to learn firsthand about the challenges these fishers face in an industry where culturally-important species such as common hake are overexploited and populations are in decline.
Fishermen like Manuel Bermudez, whose weathered face brightens with a big smile when he is on the water, have noticed the downturn. There are fewer hake to be caught, they say, and the fish are getting smaller.
Statistics bear out the observations. Landings of common hake in Chile fell to just over 150,000 tons in 2014, from almost 300,000 tons just three years earlier, in 2011. Since 2002, landings have fallen by 90%. The median length of hake caught in Chile has also fallen, from 14.5 inches to 11 inches over the past decade.
Common hake is considered the poster child of Chilean overfishing – increasingly scarce in restaurants and supermarkets. By some estimates, the illegal catch of hake is five times greater than the legal catch.
Too often, hake fishing occurs during spawning season and the fish being caught are too small. Scientists estimate that nine out of 10 hake caught off Chile’s coast are juveniles.
The threats are not limited to hake, however. Species such as anchoveta, sardine, jack mackerel and jumbo squid are either overexploited or fully exploited.
The economic stakes are high. The Humboldt Current extends along Chile’s coastline, making its fisheries highly productive. Chile is the eighth largest fishing nation in the world, supporting 130,000 direct jobs generating more than $6 billion in export revenues. And while the hake fishery is relatively small, recovery plans that work on a smaller scale can be a model for national-level sustainability measures.
The good news is that the Chilean government is engaged in reform efforts. NGOs have, for the first time, been invited to table to produce a recovery plan for hake.
On the morning I joined Manuel Bermudez for a three-hour excursion, his was one of the only boats on the water to catch any hake. Without a more sustainable fishery, however, the challenges will only multiply.