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Chilean Near-Shore Fisheries: From Shutdown to Successful Management

A version of this post, co-authored by Carmen Revenga, originally appeared on National Geographic NewsWatch.

Valdivia Coastal Reserve, Valdivia, Chile: Juvenal Trivi os, President Sindicato de Pescadores de Chaihu n
Valdivia Coastal Reserve, Valdivia, Chile. Photo credit: © Ian Shive

Today, Chile is a global example for good near-shore fisheries management. The emblematic Chilean abalone, and other important seafood, like mussels, limpets, and sea urchins live in the rocky and sandy bottoms along the Chilean coast and support the livelihoods of 50,000 artisanal fishermen and their families as a primary source of income. But, as recently as the 1980s, Chile’s artisanal fisheries were plagued by poor management. Fishers would move up and down the coast from one port to the next following natural resource blooms. The once abundant and valuable Chilean abalone was overfished, leaving an overexploited fishery that was shut down.

This was an urgent wake-up call. Soon, leading fishers, scientists, management technicians and authorities came together, to listen and learn, and to find solutions for restoring Chilean fishing grounds to sustainable levels. In doing this, they also found a way to secure the future livelihoods of the people earning a living from near shore fisheries.

A key part of the solution, in 1991, was the implementation of a territorial use rights in fisheries or TURF policy that grants use rights to fishing associations in a given territory. The associations took responsibility of managing the resources found within a given area. This policy was eventually embraced by local people involved in the near shore fisheries, especially when they began to see the restoration of marine life within TURF-governed areas. Fishing associations would have more say over the resources they would harvest and manage as well as an increasing voice in the politics governing the sector and its actors.

Today, near shore shellfish fisheries employ around 55 percentof the almost 90,000 Chilean artisanal fishermen. Most of their families depend highly on the harvest and sale of these seafood products as a source of income, so it is easy to understand the importance of managing these resources sustainably for coastal communities.

Valdivia Coastal Reserve, Valdivia, Chile: Mussel extraction at Chaihuin river by Chaihuin fishermen
Valdivia Coastal Reserve, Valdivia, Chile: Mussel extraction at Chaihuin river by Chaihuin fishermen. Photo credit: © Ian Shive

Together with local fishermen, Chilean academic leaders and government officials, scientists with The Nature Conservancy documented the successful twenty-year journey from shut down to sustainability in a new report titled, The system of territorial use rights in fisheries (TURFs) in Chile. The comprehensive review of the Chilean TURFs model includes successes and shortcomings from one of the world’s largest fishing nations and offers recommendations for other TURF systems to be successfully developed around the globe. Moving small-scale coastal fisheries from open-access and poorly managed regimes to a rights-based and orderly management regime is a critical step in achieving long term sustainability and is viable in many parts of the world.

The report finds:

  • artisanal landings in Chile over the past five years have both consistently exceeded industrial landings, and have had a higher value per ton;
  • TURFs have promoted the formation of community fishing associations, which has increased the political voice of the sector and improved communication among fishers, between fishers and the scientific community, and between the fishers and the state; and
  • in some regions, the TURF system has increased economic stability and diversification of incomes.


Looking Ahead

The progress in fisheries management has led to results that Chilean fishers and the community now appreciate, but there is still room to improve. Better enforcement to curb illegal fishing and increasing access to markets will help improve profitability, and in turn reinforce responsible management of the resource.

Notably, one of the most valuable lessons learned from the Chilean experience is that TURFs alone may not be the single solution for the diverse array of challenges posed by artisanal fisheries management. They are nevertheless a powerful management tool. When carefully designed and implemented in combination with other strategies, TURFs offer a model of adaptive management in which the knowledge of fishers, scientific principles, and governance systems work in unison to achieve sustainable fisheries management.

Chile’s experience implementing a TURF system was not always easy, but with shared commitment and long-term benefits to both fishing communities and ecosystems, it offers a model that other nations would be wise to consider as they grapple with better fisheries management.

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