Fish school around the Juan Fernandez seamounts chain off Chile, examples of the biodiverse places now protected from trawling by the country. Photo: Eduardo Sorensen
By Alex Muñoz of Oceana
I’m happy to start 2013 by sharing some inspiring news from my country, Chile, one of the world’s top fishing nations. The good news is that our Government and National Congress, following campaigning by Oceana, overhauled our fishing laws by banning bottom trawling in all vulnerable marine ecosystems (including all seamounts in Chile), requiring the implementation of reduction plans for bycatch and discards of ocean species, and ensuring that fishing quotas are based on science rather than politics.
According to a report presented to Chilean lawmakers by Oceana, in the past decade catch limits for three of Chile’s major fisheries – anchovy, jack mackerel, and hake – far exceeded scientific recommendation (by 78 percent, 87 percent, and 193 percent, respectively) and as a result, this blatant overfishing greatly endangered the future viability of these resources. Under the new law, fishing quotas will be decided by independent scientific committees, without participation of the fishing industry. This means that Chile’s catch will no longer exceed scientific recommendations and will, hopefully, become sustainable. This is incredibly important in my country as fishing is a major source of jobs and economic activity.
The new legislation also makes Chile the first country to protect all its seamounts from bottom trawling, a destructive practice that bulldozes ocean habitat in pursuit of a few target species on the seafloor. This vicious fishing method destroys precious habitats on seamounts, including remarkable coral gardens which can take centuries to form. But thanks to the Chilean Congress, all 118 seamounts in Chile are now closed to bottom trawling.
Finally, the law requires fishermen to reduce bycatch, which is the incidental catch of species not targeted by the fishing industry. It results in huge amounts of fish and other marine life being thrown back into the ocean, dead or dying. All fisheries must now create plans to reduce bycatch and take added measures to protect species like marine mammals, turtles, and seabirds that are incidentally caught. This is a major development in Chile where some fisheries have enormous amounts of bycatch. Our swordfish fishery, for example, amazingly catches more sharks (as bycatch) than swordfish.
This legislation is an enormous step forward for a country that has, for too long, ignored the environmental impact of its fishing fleet. But it took a lot of hard work over the years by Oceana’s staff in Chile and key members of Congress to make it a reality. Of particular note was the work done by National Geographic and Oceana in 2010 to highlight some of Chile’s precious marine habitat, which helped create the fourth largest fully protected no-take zone around the island of Salas y Gómez, near Easter Island (In 2011, both NatGeo and Oceana, together with the Chilean Navy, conducted a new and unprecedented expedition to Salas y Gómez and have proposed the expansion of the same marine park).
We’re proud of all these accomplishments, but there is more work to be done. As we look towards the not-so-distant future, when the world will have a population of 9 billion people by 2050, we must ensure that the oceans are healthy enough to contribute to the increasing demand for food. Poor people, including many in Chile, are very dependent on seafood for their food security, so the oceans must be healthy and abundant. This is only possible when we protect habitat, enforce fishing quotas and reduce bycatch. With this new legislation Chile took an important step by addressing all of the above.
As we greatly value the advances achieved, now we must work with all the different players involved, especially with a strong Chilean State that will monitor this new fishery legislation. With proper enforcement, our fisheries can become healthy and can once again benefit the artisanal fishermen and coastal communities that have depended on them for so long.
Alex Muñoz works in Oceana‘s Chile office.