Alarm Over Decline in Chile’s Mackerel Stocks

Daniela Estrada

HAVANA TIMES, Nov 8 (IPS) — Over-exploitation of jack mackerel, the main commercial species of fish caught in Chile, has caused the decline of the Pacific ocean species and a crisis in the fishing industry. Scientists recommend halving the catch in 2011.

Chile expected to fish 1.3 million tons of jack mackerel (Trachurus murphyi) within its 200-mile exclusive economic zone this year. But up to early November the country’s fleet had caught no more than 450,000 tons, according to the Fisheries Under-Secretariat at the Ministry of Economy, Development and Tourism.

And the countries belonging to the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization (SPRFMO) have landed only 712,000 tons so far this year.

The SPRFMO, which has been in the process of being formed since 2006, seeks to manage fisheries resources in a sustainable manner in the region.

Scientific delegations from the SPFRMO countries meeting in late October in the Chilean resort of Viña del Mar “determined that the situation is quite critical, on the verge of collapse,” which means measures must be taken to protect the jack mackerel, Fisheries Under-Secretary Pablo Galilea told IPS.

The Convention on the Conservation and Management of High Seas Fishery Resources in the South Pacific Ocean, which regulates the SPRFMO, was signed by Chile, China, Colombia, the Cook Islands, the European Union, the Faroe Islands, New Zealand and Peru. But only the Faroe Islands have ratified the convention, so its regulations are not yet binding.

Jack mackerel are abundant in the coastal and oceanic regions of the South Pacific. In South American waters, they are found off Ecuador, and particularly off Chile and Peru.

The estimated total biomass of jack mackerel has fallen by 79 percent since 2001. The catch reached a peak in Chile in 1995: a record 4.4 million tons.

Experts predict three possible scenarios. The gloomiest is a continuing decline of the mackerel population if current catch volumes are maintained.

“If the catch volume is reduced to 75 percent of the present level, there is a more than 50 percent probability that stocks will continue to shrink,” said Galilea. “However, if the catch is cut by 50 percent, the biomass could start to recover.”

The local chapter of Oceana, the largest international environmental organization dedicated to protecting the world’s oceans, complained in August that the Chilean National Fisheries Council, made up of government authorities and industry representatives, has since 2003 set the annual quotas for jack mackerel at higher catch limits than were recommended by the Institute for Fisheries Development.

Samuel Leiva, an activist with the Chilean office of the environmental watchdog Greenpeace, which has observer status on the SPRFMO, told IPS that there has also been “a large increase in the foreign fleet of fishing vessels operating outside the 200-mile limit, mainly from China and the European Union.”

Another factor is climate change, which may have affected the ocean currents and might be driving the jack mackerel further from the coast, towards the open ocean.

“Greenpeace believes the solution is ratification of the SPRFMO convention,” so that scientific recommendations about catch quotas are respected, Leiva said.

In Chile, the main catch zone extends from the central region of Valparaíso to the southern region of Los Lagos, principally off the Bíobío region, situated more than 500 kilometers south of Santiago. A second extraction zone is located in the extreme north of the country.

Some of the jack mackerel catch is exported canned or frozen, but most of it is converted to fishmeal and fish oil, used as feed for farmed salmon, for which Chile is the world’s second largest producer.

“Our big challenge is to get all the countries who exploit this fishery to adopt conservation measures,” said Under-Secretary Galilea. He added that Chile will propose “substantially lower quotas” at the next SPRFMO meeting, to be held Jan. 24-28, 2011, in Cali, Colombia.

The 2011 quotas will be decided by the National Fisheries Council in December, and Galilea stressed “this is the moment of truth, because out of the 22 major fisheries in the country, nine are overfished and four more are at risk of over-exploitation.”

Cutting back the quotas “will require a major social and economic adjustment, especially in the Bíobío region,” an area heavily damaged by the Feb. 27 earthquake and tsunami, Galilea admitted.

Industrial fishing vessels have been granted 95 percent of the catch quotas, set since 1999, while artisanal fishers have the remaining five percent. The fishing industry directly employs 10,000 workers in its vessels and processing plants.

The government of rightwing President Sebastián Piñera is relying on economic growth to absorb part of the workforce displaced from the fishing industry. It will also promote human consumption of jack mackerel, in order to increase its added value.

“The decline of the jack mackerel population does have an impact on us, but it won’t cause a crisis in small-scale fishing because it’s not our main catch,” Zoila Bustamante, the head of the National Confederation of Artisanal Fishers (CONAPACH), told IPS. However, she acknowledged there would be a “significant” impact in the north of Chile.

In her view, “it’s not enough to just lower the quotas. We need to discuss how to ensure fair prices, in extraordinary periods like these. Because we are not the ones who over-exploit this fishery, and we think there should be a guaranteed minimum quota, in tons, for small-scale fishing.

“Jack mackerel ceased to be part of the basic Chilean diet years ago, when it began to be converted to fishmeal instead, so we’re not facing a food security problem, but rather the end of an industry developed by 15 large fishing companies,” Bustamante said.

On Nov. 2, the Senate passed a bill changing the way catch quotas are set and mandating a study on the sizes of jack mackerels caught. The bill still has to make it through the lower house.

From January to July 2010, Chilean fisheries and aquaculture exports amounted to just over two billion dollars, 13 percent lower than the total for the same period in 2009.

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