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Back to the sea - recovering from a tsunami

About 75% of all fishing boats were destroyed or damaged by the tsunami (© FAO/Rodrigo Flores)
About 75% of all fishing boats were destroyed or damaged by the tsunami
© FAO/Rodrigo Flores

When a tsunami hit south-central Chile in February 2010 hundreds of people were killed and the fishing industry was severely damaged. Smallscale fishermen, who depend on Pacific hake, corvine, shellfish, cholga, loco and oysters, were particularly affected: "I did not think of going back to the sea. I thought of going to the forest or looking for other work because we saw that the disaster was large and would be difficult to recover from with our limited resources," says Rolando Huenchunao, president of an artisanal fishing community in Tirúa, central Chile. "Buying even one or two boats was impossible. It was like catching a star in the sky with your hands." Yet, one year on, with the help of the Government of Chile and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), smallscale fishermen are recovering.

Damage appraisals conducted after the disaster estimated that about 75 per cent of all fishing boats and fishing gear were destroyed or damaged by the earthquake and tsunami. "The immediate priority was to get resources to those most in need, enabling them to fish again, and thus support food security for everyone in that region," explains Alan Bojanic, FAO representative in Chile.

Restoring capability to fish

FAO fisheries and aquaculture officer Alejandro Flores describes the aim of the project as not only to replace what was lost, but also to improve safety and efficiency, without causing overexploitation of marine resources. To ensure that all of the equipment was shared among the fishermen, FAO gave it to the fishing unions: over 100 sets of diving equipment for collecting shellfish, including compressors, 35 outboard motors and nearly 1,000 nets were distributed, enabling some fishermen to return to work only two weeks after the tsunami.

Seven thousand fishermen and divers have benefited from new equipment provided by the project (© FAO/Benjamin Labatut)
Seven thousand fishermen and divers have benefited from new equipment provided by the project
© FAO/Benjamin Labatut

Over 40 fishing boats equipped with flares, lifejackets, heliographs, and first aid kits have also been provided. To enable fishermen to preserve their catch for longer and increase their bargaining power in the market, ice machines have also been delivered. In total, the project has restored the fishing capabilities and incomes of 7,000 fishermen and divers in 16 creeks along the coast of Chile and the Pacific island of Juan Fernández.


According to Flores, a fundamental reason for the project's effectiveness has been the active participation of organised fishermen, who identified their needs and worked together to jointly manage the resources they were given. "FAO consulted us about what we needed," explains Leonel Lucero, president of the Federation of Small-Scale Fishermen of Arauco. "This was very important to us because we feel valued as an organisation. With this we are changing the mentality of the fishermen, as they now understand that the best way to get things done is to get organised."

Carmen Pilquimán, president of the Quidico Union of women seaweed farmers agrees: "The project strengthens us as unions, as it makes us work together, and for the common good of all partners." Flores continues: "The main element for success was the direct participation of the affected communities in decision-making, which increased both the efficiency and effectiveness of the emergency response." As such, FAO is committed to replicating this method of providing assistance in other regions. "It was an open, transparent and democratic process," he adds.

Renewed hope

With new boats, equipment and renewed hope, Chilean fishermen have begun to recover, but the coast has still not fully recovered. Many previously prime fishing locations remain severely affected by algae and some former shellfish grounds have been exposed as a result of the tectonic plates colliding, pushing land upwards.

Fishermen who feared returning to sea after the tsunami have had their confidence restored (© FAO)
Fishermen who feared returning to sea after the tsunami have had their confidence restored

"Today fishermen are more hopeful of the future, but we know that all the effort we've put into this project is a drop in the ocean of the needs of Chile's artisanal fishermen," says Flores. To supplement the aid already provided, FAO is therefore planning on training the fishermen, their wives and children, to repair boats, engines and other equipment in order to provide alternative sources of income. At the Government's request, FAO is also studying costs related to food safety in the artisanal fishing production chain to demonstrate that improving food safety would enable fish products from smallscale fishermen to access wider markets and achieve higher prices.

"At first we were afraid of returning to the sea," Huenchunao says, "but we have regained our confidence, we have lost our fear and we are extracting resources once again. We are people of the sea. It's what we know to do."

* The support to artisanal fishermen provided by FAO in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake was part of a UN effort funded by the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF). In total, around US$10 million was invested in different aspects of recovery and US$1 million to rehabilitate smallscale fishermen capacities.

Date published: June 2011


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