Fire, Protests, and Distrust in the Wake of Chile’s Fishery Shutdown

Protests around Chile’s handling of the red tide crisis reveal many fishers’ deep distrust of authority.

Published May 18, 2016

In an outpouring of frustration that began earlier this month, Chilean fishers have been using flaming barricades to block access to Chiloé Island, an island of about 160,000 people off Chile’s central coast. The protests, which began May 3, came as a response to a government-forced shutdown of the region’s fisheries.

Two weeks on, food supplies on both sides of the blockade, as well as medicine stocks and fuel on the island, have been affected, and government special forces have been deployed to the protest sites.

The fisheries shutdown came after the Chilean government detected a bloom of toxic red algae in the region. And while phytoplankton samples confirmed elevated levels of algae-produced domoic acid (a toxin that causes amnesic shellfish poisoning in humans) in January, it’s only in recent weeks that the situation has become a political crisis.

In April, the number of dead sea creatures washing on shore escalated, prompting Chilean President Michelle Bachelet to declare a state of emergency along the coast of Los Lagos Region, which includes Chiloé Island. On May 11, officials announced that the region of the coast affected by the red algae is growing and shifting.

The algae bloom, like the ban on fishing, will likely last for several more months. With such a dramatic strike against their livelihoods, fishers are angered by the government’s inadequate plan to compensate them for the fisheries shutdown: CLP 100,000 (about US $150) per family—later increased to about $1,400.

Anger at the offered compensation may have catalyzed the dramatic protests, but unrest within the small-scale fishing community has been simmering for years. In addition to the economic frustration, the protestors have also expressed a strong distrust of the government—in particular, its explanation of the cause of the red algae bloom.

Chile’s environment minister has blamed climate change for the appearance of the red tide. Related to this, government authorities and a number of scientists have pointed to the unusually intense El Niño as a cause, as elevated algae levels can result from the warmer sea water and changing nutrient mix caused by the climate pattern.

But this framing of the situation as a natural disaster has angered Chiloé’s fishers and their supporters. They argue that the chemicals used by commercial salmon farms are at fault. Particularly contentious is the industry’s dumping of contaminated fish.

Indeed, many of the protestors see climatic explanations as a smokescreen for the government’s inability to take on large commercial interests, such as the farmed salmon industry. Among many organizations, the Chilean office of Greenpeace has taken up the cause. The nonprofit organization is also calling into question the argument that El Niño and climate change are behind the marine die-offs, and has demanded to see documents relating to environmental assessments of the salmon farms.

As told to El Mostrador, 75-year-old fisherman Francisco Segundo Ceron has witnessed a decline in shellfish numbers, alongside a contamination of the waters. “The seafloor has changed,” he tells the Chilean newspaper. “Before it was clear. Now there is dirt, many algae. Sea urchins, for example, are covered by them. There are days when you can’t look down, the water is cloudy, medium-brown, it’s not clear.”

But while the reduction of shellfish has been gradual, the current crisis is different. “I've never seen this,” Ceron says. “There was always a red tide, but it never killed seafood, so this is not the red tide. It’s a lie! I’ve been doing this for 45 years. We blame all salmon that was dumped.”

Camilo Werlinger, a marine algae expert at Chile’s Universidad de Concepción, is urging caution in assigning blame. “Most of the people don’t know how this phenomenon [the red algae bloom] is produced,” he says. “The people feel that it’s an interaction between the intense salmon culturing in the south and the policies of the government.” But the picture, he says, is more complicated. It may be that the salmon farming is related to the deaths of thousands of sea creatures, but this is only one factor. And in Werlinger’s view, salmon farming is not responsible for the algae bloom.

The good news is the unrest is diminishing. On May 14, six towns reached an agreement with the government on the amount of compensation, although several other towns were still protesting. This followed confirmation that an independent team of scientists has been tasked with investigating the links between the red tide and the dumping of salmon. Whether these experts will reach a consensus about the causes of the marine devastation—and whether Chileans will be satisfied with their conclusions—remains to be seen.