Photo essay by: Aly Moser
A local fisherman wades out into the Pacific Ocean of Chile’s west coast in Coquimbo Beach. The town, known for it’s fishing industry, was rocked by a tsunami one year ago after the devastating earthquake in September 2015. Now, several fishermen opt to fish by hand even though it yields less fish because it is less expensive than maintain the upkeep of a boat.
Enrique Lopez Gonzales is a fisherman in the coastal town of Coquimbo, Chile. During the tsunami, Enrique lost his fishing boat in the wreckage. He has been borrowing a friend’s boat for the past several months so he can continue fishing and earn his income. “I fish because it’s my passion, and I’ve been doing it since I was 16.”
“I leave to go work at 3am. We get the nets ready but recently, we’ve run into the problem of the growing sea lion population. There’s more than 20,000 sea lions, so the fishing here has shrunk. There are very few fish but many sea lions,” Gonzales says. Fisherman can spend up to multiple hours untangling the nets that are wrapped up by these sea lions. The population has created a unique problem for the fishing industry in Coquimbo—ever since the tsunami that hit over a year ago, the sea lion population has increased drastically.
Local fishermen gather at the Coquimbo port to help place a rebuilt boat back into the water. The ship was damaged in the tsunami of 2015 and took one year to repair. Hundreds more boats were damaged in the tsunami which has also lead to the shrinking of the fishing industry since the fishermen don’t have a way to go out in the water and fish like they used to be able to. A local fishermen and restaurant owner in the market nearby, Harry Gloria relives the night of the tsunami. “Last September, around 8 o’clock, there was an earthquake. After the earthquake, about 25 minutes later, there came a tsunami. It was about 4-5 waves but they were 5 meters large each…about 4-5 waves. By midnight, it had destroyed everything around here in Coquimbo, the whole coast was destroyed, the inlet of Coquimbo was all destroyed.”
As Coquimbo continues to rebuild its coast, the increasing sea lion population creates a greater threat. The locals call them “los lobos” which translates to “the wolves”. “They are very dangerous, they attack us fisherman and are known to attack tourists on the beach especially during summer,” Enrique says.
Cruising by some of the wreckage caused by the tsunami, Enrique says that another cause for the sunken ships are the sea lions. They are known for getting caught in fishermen’s nets but Enrique says the most damage is caused when they jump up on the fishermen’s boats and sink them. He says, “They get on the boats, they flip them. These engines are new. Each replacement costs 8,000-10,000 for the engine. And when they flip, well, what else is there?”
A local fisherman dumps the extra fish guts from his previous catch to the sea lions to distract them from his boats. Fishermen in Coquimbo use different tactics to distract the sea lions from their fish in the hopes that it will give them time to unload their boat.
The mornings are usually the busiest time of day for the fishermen because they wake up early to catch the fish and then have to unload and prepare the fish for daily for customers. The Coquimbo fish market prides itself on only selling fish from that day’s catch. The process depends on the type of fish, however standard procedure is to hang the fish by its mouth to clean and sanitize the fish’s body before immersing the fish into a large ice cooler. The fish stay in this cooler all day until they are purchased by a customer or cooked. At the end of the day, the extra fish is either thrown away, stowed away to be used for bait, or given to the fishermen’s family to use.
Tucked away behind the Coquimbo port are dozens full of pop up markets run by the fisherman to sell their fish. A customer stops by Harry Gloria’s pop-up market to pick up fish from the morning’s catch. Harry Gloria was one of the fishermen in Coquimbo who lost everything in the 2015 tsunami. Gloria says he continues to fish because he loves it despite it being a lot tougher with limited resources. He keeps a picture book of all of the damage to his boat, market, supplies, and restaurant. When asked why he keeps those devastating images with him at all times he says: It’s my responsibility to tell anyone who will listen about the tsunami. No one heard about it. No news talked about it. The pictures are simply a way to prove to people that this actually happened to Coquimbo.”
By mid-afternoon, Enrique has completed a full day’s worth of work and packs up his boat for the rest of the day. He will begin the process all over again the next morning. Enrique says the fishing industry is more than just a job, it’s the way of life in Coquimbo. “The ocean is a passion. Whoever likes the ocean has a passion. You live by the ocean, you navigate the ocean and you breathe its pure air,” he says.