There was a time when Francisco Zapata could bring in six tons of the much-prized Chilean sea bass in 24 hours. Last month it took him 10 days to catch two tons.
The fish, popular for its firm flesh in restaurants from Miami to Tokyo, is increasingly scarce off Chile’s Pacific coast and Zapata, 55, like many local fishermen, knows it’s partly his fault.
“We’ve probably all been a bit greedy, and dropped our nets in places where we shouldn’t,” Zapata said in an interview. “We all think we are owners of the sea, but nobody has looked after the fish here.”
The exhaustion of what were once some of the world’s richest waters is a study in mismanagement, according to Alex Munoz, vice-president for Chile at the environmental group Oceana, which works to protect fish stocks. Squeezed between poorer fishermen such as Zapata and the handful of families that control the country’s industrial fleet, Chile’s government has simply let too many fish be pulled from the sea, he said.
“Sustainability wasn’t a concern for the government,” Munoz said. “That’s the principal cause for the crisis we are seeing today.”
Catches of sea bass slumped to about 2,000 tons in 2014 from more than 12,000 tons 15 years earlier. Further out to sea, last year’s mackerel catch was 290,000 tons, down 90 percent from from 2.9 million tons in 1997.
Forced to take the advice of scientists and impose stricter quotas, the government is now facing protests. Fishermen took to the streets of Talcahuano and Concepcion this year after the government cut sardine limits.
Most of Talcahuano’s fishermen have already filled their quotas for this year, said Cesar Jorquera, a consultant to artesanal fishermen, who use smaller boats and have exclusive rights within 5 miles (8 kilometers) of the coast.
Chile’s 6,500-kilometer (4,000-mile) coastline was once rich in hake, jack mackerel, sardines, sea bass, kingklip, anchovies and skate, and the fishing industry was worth $6.2 billion last year. According to government fishing regulators, all but sardines are now classified as either “over-exploited” or “exhausted.”
In the 1980s, the government gave fishing permits to anyone who asked, without catch limits. By 2003, as stocks declined, the authorities began imposing quotas -- though only half-heartedly.
Quotas were set by a committee that included industry representatives and labor unions. While scientists recommended a jack mackerel quota of 750,000 tons in 2009, the committee set the limit at 1.4 million tons.
That system of self-regulation gave too much power to the fishing industry, and the families that control the industrial fleets, including Angelini, Sarquis, Stengel and Yaconi-Santa Cruz, Munoz said.
Small fishermen pin most of the blame on the big fleets.
“No one can say the artesanal fishermen have over-exploited resources,” said Hernan Machuca, spokesman for the National Council for the Defense of Fishing. “Our boats are just 12 meters long (39 feet). We can’t fish many tons. The deterioration is due to the industry fleets.”
The government has been “soft” on big companies because of economic and political pressure, Machuca said.
Industrial fleet operators counter that some of the blame should go to illegal catches by small fisherman, who control 55 percent of the national quota in metric tons.
Large fishing fleets have operated sustainably since the government restricted quotas and revised the fishing laws in 2013, said Hector Bacigalupo, head of Chile’s National Fisheries Society, which represents the larger companies.
“This isn’t exclusively a problem of the industrial fleet,” he said in an interview.
The government’s perspective is that overfishing is everyone’s fault and it’s time to move on.
Past mistakes are “part of our history and an accumulated experience,” said Raul Sunico, head of Chile’s fishing regulator. “We are now in the process of installing a new concept, a scientific one.”
President Michelle Bachelet has ordered the construction of a research ship to better estimate fish stocks closer to the coast, he said.
Under the 2013 law, the committee that previously set the quotas was abolished, and fishing limits were determined by scientists.
The government immediately started cutting quotas. The limit for hake was reduced to 19,000 tons in 2014, from 40,000 tons in 2013, and the allowance for sea bass fell to 2,086 tons from 4,483 tons.
That’s an improvement, though Oceana’s Munoz said it won’t guarantee the sustainability of Chile’s fish stocks. For example, the government allowed fisherman to bring in 19,000 tons of hake in 2014. This year, scientists recommended a quota of 18,000 tons to 23,000 tons, and the government approved a catch of as much as 23,000 tons.
The fishing law is also facing a threat. Corpesca SA, a fishing company that catches jack mackerel in northern Chile, has said it made regular payments to two lawmakers during the congressional debate over the bill.
Some lawmakers from the ruling coalition and small-scale fishermen say those payments invalidate the law and want the government to scrap it.
That’s not going to happen, said Sunico, the regulator. The government is considering modifying the law, but not a major overhaul, and has called in the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to review Chile’s fishing policies.
And the country’s fisherman plan to catch every kilo of fish that’s allowed.
“We are fishermen and that’s what we do,” Zapata said. “It’s not like I will learn to cut down trees or something like that. I will die with my fishing boots on.”