Beasts of the Chilean Seas

Broadcast by: Jaclyn Lee; Written by: DeLaney McGuire

In the coastal Chilean region of Coquimbo, 250 miles north of Santiago, pelicans soar over a school of anchored boats. Several land on a nearby dock or a rickety boat, and one drops off, diving headfirst into the sea. Coquimbo is home to the oasis city Ovalle, an agricultural hub amongst dry, barren hills. But most tourists flock to this region for its beaches, found in the region’s capital, La Serena, and its namesake city, Coquimbo.

Fishing has served as the cornerstone of Coquimbo’s economy since before it was a city at all. More than 2,000 years ago, hunter-fisher-gatherers lived on this shore. Seventeenth-century Spaniards grouped surrounding indigenous communities based on their similar lifestyles. They called the seafaring natives Camanchacos, or Changos. Expert fishermen, the Changos constructed rafts, nets, hooks and spears and devised various methods for catching their fish of choice.

With its shoreline stretching for 2,600 miles along the Pacific Ocean, it’s no surprise that, today, Chile is a key player in the world’s fishing industry, contributing more than $1.2 billion each year. The country’s waters foster one of the most productive marine ecosystems on the planet, thanks to the low-salinity Humboldt Current, which flows along the length of Chile.

Here, fishing is the lifeblood of coastal cities like La Serena and Coquimbo. Fresh fillets sizzle in the kitchens of the seafood restaurants that line the streets. Gulls squawk at passersby who duck into the fish market for a peek at today’s catch. Fishermen stomp around the docks, tying off nets and rinsing out chum buckets. And tourists gaze out toward a deep blue ocean, squinting at the tiny ships in the distance. The sea is an integral part of daily life, but life by the sea is not always easy.

Ancient cartographers, informed by legends and inspired by their own imaginations, charted sea serpents along with currents, islands and other obstacles. Now, modern science has given us a better understanding of the ocean, and mysterious creatures have largely disappeared from conversation among seamen.

However, the ocean still presents daunting challenges for those who make their living among its waves. Three factors threaten the livelihood of fishermen in Coquimbo everyday: large-scale, commercial fishing companies, a teeming population of sea lions and a tsunami-inducing fault line that spreads throughout the region.

 

Big Business

José Guzman Salinas, likely no more than 10 years old, sits in the sand watching his uncle and grandfather drag their colorful, wooden boat ashore. Silvery fish shimmer in the afternoon sunlight as the men flaunt their heaping nets.

Nearly twenty years later, that shining bounty is a distant memory for Guzman, who has followed in his grandfather’s footsteps. Large-scale, industrial fishing has since ravaged the Chilean shoreline. Today, massive ships prowl along this coastline, dragging gigantic trawl nets through the waters behind them. These nets can be as wide as a football field – large enough to catch thousands of fish at once.

Chile’ has the world’s seventh largest commercial catch, as of 2010, and seafood is one of the country’s top exported goods. Four industrial fishing companies – Marfood, Orizon, Blumar and Camanchaca Pesca Sur – dominate the market, roughly half of which is large-scale, commercial companies. Artisan fishermen make up the other half of the market.

Scientists say natural changes in climate over the past few decades have had negative consequences for the fish population along the coast of Chile. However, many of the small-scale fishermen are also pointing fingers at the larger companies, blaming malpractice and overfishing for the depleted stock.

Guzman said, “For the fisherman here in Chile it’s very difficult. There were so many kinds of fish before, and now there are very few. It’s because of the industrial fishing.” Although Guzman still considers himself a fisherman, low profits caused by the fish shortage has forced him to shift his focus to shellfish diving. “There are no fishermen left [in La Serena]. It used to all be fishermen…but since there are no fish we don’t do that anymore,” he said.

Recent data shows that more than 70 percent of fish species in the waters bordering Chile have been overfished. Twenty years ago, fishermen took in 4.5 million tons of the country’s prized jack mackerel. By 2012, that number had decreased by more than 93 percent. Along with the dwindling supply comes the shrinkage of the fish themselves. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, the median length of hake, another popular fish in Chile, has decreased by 3.5 inches in the past ten years. A single fillet once filled a plate; it now takes two.

These changes have left the country’s 86,000 artisan fishermen floundering. They struggle to survive off the meager catch found in their designated fishing zone, which expands to just one nautical mile from shore. Just three years ago, fishermen with vessels less than 40 feet long had exclusive rights to the fish found up to five nautical miles from the coastline. Despite protests from local fishermen, the zone shrunk by four miles when the Fisheries Act, or la Ley de Pesca, took effect in February 2013.

However, with such a scarce fish population near shore, the small-scale fishermen frequently break the rules in search of fish farther out. “Our fathers, they’d cast nets just right there where that boat is and caught plenty, plenty of fish. Not anymore,” said Guzman. “Now we have to go way out there, and we catch less.”

Proponents of the law applaud its efforts to promote sustainability by setting science-based fishing quotas and outlawing the destructive practice of bottom trawling in areas with seamounts, making Chile the first country in the world to do so. However, independent fishermen argue many of the law’s provisions support big business and impede the economic growth of small-scale fishermen.

The Fisheries Act has essentially privatized the industry by allocating large quotas to major fishing corporations in the form of 20-year renewable contracts. It left the majority of localized fishermen without rights. The law also requires vessels to have a global positioning system, or GPS – an expense few independent fishermen can easily afford.

Guzman’s family has made their living on the sea for generations. “The ocean is my life,” he said. “It has always been my life.” It’s all he’s ever known, and he doesn’t want that to change.

 

Sea Lions

Chilean fishermen and sea lions have waged war since the first humans paddled through the country’s coastal waters. Thousands of years ago, the Chango peoples hunted the sea lions, making use of every part of the body for food or tools. Today, the government prohibits the killing of South American sea lions, but local fishermen in Coquimbo say sometimes the sea lions pose too great a threat and must be killed, regardless of the law.

At first glance, these blubbery sea creatures appear harmless. They splash around the inlets and close their eyes, almost smiling as they sunbathe on the rocks jutting out from the water. But catch them fighting over a morsel of food, and it’s clear to see why they’re considered the lions of the sea.

Baring four yellowed canine teeth, a territorial male lifts its head toward the sky and bellows deeply. Dust flies as the sea lion charges its opponent at a speed hardly believable for a 600-pound animal with flippers. A closer look reveals a face full of whiskers, a thick mane across the head and even claws on the hind flippers.

Roughly 600,000 sea lions swim in Chile’s ocean. In 2003, there were 28 colonies – nearly 4,200 South American sea lions – recorded in the Coquimbo region alone. That same year, interactions between fishermen and sea lions caused a $19.3 million loss for the artisan fishing industry, according to a study published in the ICES Journal of Marine Science.

Gerardo Cerda, manager of Coquimbo’s Environmental Management Department of Sernapesca, said, “The fishermen and sea lions find their source of food and work in the same population of fish. And there are not as many fish as there were before so the level of conflict has increased.”

Although people commonly assume the population of sea lions has skyrocketed, in reality, the animals have just moved closer to popular fishing inlets. Cerda said sea lions are smart, opportunistic creatures. They’ve figured out it’s much easier to catch food when the fishermen are working, so they’ve moved closer to urban populations than ever before.

Luis Patricio Duvó, a fisherman and shellfish diver working in La Serena, has witnessed first hand the unique behaviors of local sea lions. “They used to hunt by themselves,” he said. “Like you see on the reports on TV; you see that they hunt. But not here. They come to the fishermen because they see it full of fish, they start eating at it and grabbing the fish.”

Local fisherman Enrique Lopez Gonzalez has worked off the coast of Coquimbo since he was just 16 years old. He said many fishermen feel that sea lions threaten their livelihood. “They damage things, they flip boats, and there’s no fish. Without any fish, we don’t work,” he said.

Sea lions get trapped in fishermen’s nets, drowning themselves, destroying the gear and releasing the catch. They’ve also been known to sink vessels and injure or even kill fishermen.

Notorious sunbathers, sea lions hop on boats anchored in the cove to bask in the warm rays. But with a mass of up to 800 pounds each, just five or more sea lions could overturn a boat. Lopez said sea lions have flipped 10 boats like his in the main fishing inlet of Coquimbo. “It costs 14,000,000 pesos, the whole boat,” he said. “These engines are new. Each replacement costs 8-10,000,000 [Chilean pesos].”

Like any large predator, sea lions can be dangerous. Last month in Coquimbo, a sea lion bit a local diver on the head. The diver had 18 stiches and remained in the hospital for more than two weeks because of an infection caused by the bacteria on the animal’s teeth.

Cerda said a sea lion that has attacked a person is likely to attack again. Cerda and his colleagues at Sernapesca hope to capture the sea lion and relocate it to a sanctuary far from human populations to prevent fishermen from seeking revenge.

Despite a healthy population and interference with local fishing practices, South American sea lions are a protected species that play a valuable role in the marine ecosystem. Killing a sea lion is a crime, punishable by both fines and imprisonment. When it’s life or death, however, fishermen say they’ll do what they have to do to save themselves.

Lopez remembers a time when he was faced with that difficult choice. A distraught sea lion plunged out of the water and flopped onto the boat, which jolted under its weight. It thrashed around on the boat and attacked Lopez and his crew when they tried to push it off. All the while an orca circled the vessel. While the sea lion is certainly a threat, an orca on the small side would likely weigh more than 3,000 pounds. These alpha predators, often called killer whales, are known for their fierce hunting skills and ability to wipe out even the largest marine animals. Lopez said he was faced with no choice. He and his crew beat the sea lion to death, offering it like a sacrifice to the black and white king of the sea.

“It was him or us,” Lopez said. “You have to value human life…If the orca eats the sea lion, the orca eats us too. It can flip over the boat.”

Lopez said killing sea lions is “a pity and embarrassing,” but it’s something that fishermen have to do in order to work efficiently.

Duvó, however, said killing sea lions doesn’t bother him. “For the fishermen it isn’t sad because we are sacrificing ourselves to bring food to eat,” he said. “They’re eating all of the fish. They don’t leave any, and they’re laughing.” He said local fishermen use spears or hit the sea lions with shovels when necessary.

Cerda’s organization keeps records of sea lion deaths in Coquimbo. “Here, in this region, we didn’t have any registry of sea lions that clearly died by fishermen this year,” Cerda said. “Last year, we did. We found a sea lion with signs that it had been shot with a rifle. There were others with holes on their bodies that could’ve been caused by an exploding element.”

Guzman said he’s never killed a sea lion but remembers his uncle killing several of them years ago. “[My uncle] killed sea lions with dynamite here. But that’s illegal; you can’t say that openly. It’s illegal to deal with explosives and to kill sea lions.”

However, Cerda confessed that this practice is not yet obsolete. About five years ago, Cerda said, 90 sea lions washed up on a beach 125 miles north of Coquimbo. The night before, a group of fishermen used dynamite to scare the sea lions away from their catch. “The use of dynamite caused harm to these animals and ended up killing them,” Cerda said. “Fishing with dynamite is a crime in our country, but, unfortunately, we could not find who was responsible.”

Fishermen say the Chilean government knows of their plight, but does nothing to help them. Consequently, they turn to violence because they don’t know how else to cope with the sea lion problem.

Cerda said, “Many times, the fishermen feel that the sea lions are more protected than they are as members of society.”

Until 20 years ago, the government regulated the sea lion population by setting a yearly quota. Fishermen could capture sea lions as long as they didn’t exceed the decided number. Today, the species is completely protected and the only legal deaths occur from natural causes or predatory attacks.

Lopez said, “The people are mad because the government has to do something about this. There are too many sea lions. In a year there won’t be any more fish.”

 

Tsunamis

“By midnight, it had destroyed everything around here in Coquimbo. The whole coast was destroyed. The inlet of Coquimbo was all destroyed.”

On September 16, 2015 at 8 p.m., an earthquake caused a tsunami that hit the coast of Chile. Fifteen-foot waves pummeled the city of Coquimbo, killing 15 people and demolishing the livelihoods of many more. Local restaurant owner and fish merchant Harry Gloria said he lost everything in the waves. Gloria, along with dozens of merchants who work alongside him, had to rebuild Coquimbo’s fish market from the ground up.

“The whole population came to help us and to clean everything,” Gloria said. “The individuals, those, they help in a disaster.”

The same active fault that created Chile’s awe-inspiring Andes mountain range is the source of the country’s infamous earthquakes. However, for Chileans who make their living from the sea, the earthquakes aren’t the problem. It’s the tsunamis that are truly damaging. “The earthquakes here in Chile, they didn’t do anything,” Gloria said. “Look, the earthquakes didn’t destroy. The only things that fell were the beverage bottles. But when the tsunami came, it destroyed everything.”

Chile suffered from 18 earthquakes in the past decade alone. In that time, five tsunamis struck cities up and down the Chilean coast.

Last year’s disaster was not Gloria’s first encounter with a tsunami. He’s worked on the ocean for 46 years, catching, selling and preparing fish. “Before, here in Coquimbo, the same thing happened. It destroyed everything on this coast and now it’s all rebuilt,” he said. “You have to leave everything aside, because the ocean and nature doesn’t respect anything. It destroys everything.”

During the tsunami, massive waves swallowed Coquimbo, flipping cars, tossing boats on top of houses and flattening much of the city’s coastal infrastructure.

Lopez said he found his boat “rung like a chicken’s neck” after the tsunami. Now, he rents a boat until he can scrape together enough money to replace his old one. “Everything was left like when you crumble a cookie,” he said. “We lost everything.”

More than a year after the tsunami, the coast of Coquimbo is still a construction site. Cranes loom above skeletal buildings, and the salty breeze carries the hum of saws and drills through the city. The remains of fishing boats torn apart by the sea scatter the beaches and protrude from the bay.

“Everyone will go back to doing the same thing after rebuilding, maybe in a year, in 50 or 100 years,” Gloria said.

For Chileans who live off the sea, the threat of tsunamis is the haunting reality that, at any moment, they could lose everything they’ve worked so hard to build. But even when that happens, these fishermen push on, enjoying the freedom and adventure of the sea.

“The ocean is a passion,” said Lopez. “Whoever likes the ocean has a passion. You live from the ocean, in front of the wind.”

 

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