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Sustainability of the Juan Fernández lobster fishery (Chile)

  • Dr. Billy Ernst, Universidad de Concepción, Chile

  • 2006

Benthic resources are harvested by small scale fisheries along most coastal regions of the world. These fisheries are often unregulated or have vertical management advice, whose plans are commonly molded after conventional prescriptions, originally conceived for industrial fisheries. At the same time, effective management practices established by tradition go unnoticed by fishery management and scientist.

The spiny lobster (Jasus frontalis) fishery of the Juan Fernández Islands, Chile has been operating for the last 100 years. Fishing effort within a season can be broken down into traps, boats and number of trips per month. Total number of boats remained almost constant over time, increasing only from 41 to 47 boats between 1946 and 2005. Traps are visited every other day and because of strong currents or heavy seas, effort averages 12 trips per month.

The basic regulatory measures imposed by the federal fishing authority have been minimum legal size, no take of ovigerous females and a seasonal reproductive fishery closure. Even though these measures and bad weather conditions put a cap on fishing effort, the most important driving mechanism is likely traditional, nearly undocumented restricted access to the fishing grounds. Fishers deploy single traps at specific locations known as “marcas” (marks), accurately located by taking 2-3 bearings on different topographic features of the coastscape. Most boat captains and some crew own their marcas, which they have inherited or bought with a boat. It is believed that all the good marcas are already taken, so there are no incentives to join this fishery by exploiting new sites. We identified this system as unique and extremely important for the organization and structure of this fishery. It is the foundation of a tenure system that has been operating for a long time in the Juan Fernández Islands. Despite these qualities, this system has not been previously acknowledged, either in technical reports or in scientific papers.

The objective of this phase of the project was to create a catalog of marcas. Researchers, including island residents hired as technical staff, joined lobster fisherman on their trips, conducting interviews, sampling and collecting geographic coordinates of the visited fishing sites. Biological and fishery data were recorded as well. Data were digitized into an ACCESS database and an ArcGIS geodatabase was developed as well. A secondary effort was made to compile all of the historical information about the fishery, including data obtained from Mr. Patricio Arana, who has been visiting the islands for decades.

The lobster fleets of both Robinson Crusoe and Alexander Selkirk Islands were 100% covered, with at least one visit on each boat. During the 2005-2006 season, 1560 marks were georeferenced, demonstrating the pronounced seasonal migratory behavior of the fishing fleet (from the coast to offshore) and allowing for the creation of statistical fishing areas based on geographic clusters fishing sites.

Results and high resolution maps were provided to the fishing community, and fishermen were also pleased to receive an individual catalogue of their marcas. All available publications and gray literature reports since 1965 of the Juan Fernandez spiny lobster fishery were assembled and provided to the director of the fishing syndicate. This information represents all the research on the biology and fishery of Juan Fernández spiny lobster since the beginning of the fishery. This is an important step towards empowering the fishermen because it demonstrates that technical information can be available to them.

Researchers attended the 2006 federal stock assessment and management meeting on Juan Fernández spiny lobster, where analyses were based on one year of detailed data collection and heavily hinge on restrictive equilibrium assumptions and government surveys that are conducted once every 10 years. These results led to a very pessimistic view of the fishery and the promotion of a catch quota. Based on this project, we were able to present a very different picture based on historical catch, effort and relative abundance data, which demonstrated that the previous season yielded the highest relative abundance in the last 25 years. The results of the marcas project clearly illustrated the structure of the tenure system that regulates the fishery. Instead of arbitrary individual catch quotas that could lead to an unstable regime and perhaps a collapse, we recommended effort control (number of traps) as a much more appropriate approach should the fishery need regulating.

See the publication Sustainability of the Juan Fernández lobster fishery (Chile) and the perils of generic science-based prescriptions.