- The sea near Ventanas, Chile, was generous in the 1980s. There were urchins, limpets, clams and fish. Tourists summered there and fishermen thrived.
- That all changed as the local industrial park grew. In 2000 the National Health Service discovered serious heavy-metal and fecal-bacteria contamination of local shellfish, and prohibited their sale, effectively shuttering the local seafood industry.
- Fishermen attempted to revive their aquaculture operations, despite a series of oil spills. But poisoning episodes in 2018 quashed that initiative.
- “Could they have seen us as a dumpsite? Like their backyard? … I don’t know how the government saw us,” said Carlos Vega, a longtime Ventanas fisherman.
VENTANAS, Chile — The first time Carlos Vega saw white Japanese oyster flesh, he was surprised. He had only seen it in a shade of green. It was then that he realized that the seafood he harvested along the coast of Ventanas in central Chile was contaminated.
Carlos and his fishing colleagues sold oysters on the beaches of Ventanas to wealthy tourists who spent summers there. Raw with lemon! Delicious oysters!
They began cultivating oysters in 1996. But four years later, the National Health Service closed their operation down after a massive episode of poisoning that the service attributed to contamination by heavy metals. A stigma fell on Ventanas. The million-dollar investment in materials, labor and time that the fishermen had made with the help of a German NGO was suddenly lost.
“It was the first time we fishermen realized what was happening,” Carlos told Mongabay Latam, looking at the industrial park by the sea. The park was home to four coal-fired power plants, a copper smelter and refinery, an oil refinery, a cement company, and five storage tanks for liquefied natural gas, among other installations. And it had brought them misery.
The golden years
In 1964, when Carlos was only 20 years old, he started working for a copper smelter in Ventanas. He was also in charge of driving the truck that transported slag to a dumping site that continues to operate to this day. In his spare time, he scuba dived, a skill he learned from his father.
When Carlos realized that he could earn more money from fishing, he quit his job and took up diving. The sea was generous in the 1980s. There were urchins, limpets, clams and fish to catch, and banks of big bivalves (Mesodesma donacium), known as machas in Spanish, “that we thought, ignorantly, would never run out,” Carlos said.
Soon, Carlos raised enough money to buy modern diving equipment and a boat. He became a small-business owner, rented a house with a bathroom, and his business grew quickly. Others also invested in fishing. The boats would come back to the beach full of machas. But by the mid-to-late 1980s, the seafood stocks, which had seemed inexhaustible, were gone.
The elders chose Carlos and a few of his colleagues, the only ones who had completed their school studies, to lead a union they decided to create in 1987. Carlos became the secretary and Eugenio Silva was its president. “We understood that what we now call overfishing, existed,” Carlos said.
Relying on their intuition and what they had observed underwater, the fishermen self-imposed extraction quotas to allow macha populations to recover. They also created a management area to sustainably cultivate and harvest resources, mainly abalone.
In addition, as an alternative resource, they decided to plant a seaweed known as pelillo (Gracilaria chilensis) in a new cultivation area. It was in the bay, right in front of the growing industrial park, which the fishermen paid little attention to.
“We were focused on our business. We did not worry about what the companies did or did not do. We did not suspect anything about what would happen,” recalled Carlos during a walk to a drain that runs directly to the sea without any treatment.
Pelillo, sometimes called black gold and used to make agar-agar and as ingredients in the cosmetic, pharmaceutical and food industries, grows abundantly in southern Chile. With the support of the Catholic University of Valparaiso, the fishermen carried out studies and found that the local conditions were right to grow the algae. However, the pelillo did not take and the project failed.
“Later we learned that the heavy metals that were in the seabed acted as an algicide and that’s why we lost the algae,” Carlos said. “When that happened, since we were stubborn, we decided to cultivate Japanese oysters, mussels and scallops in the water column.”
In 1996, with the support of a German NGO, the fishermen obtained the resources to start cultivating shellfish. They put in the work: the hours of diving and maintenance, as well as the operating expenses such as fuel for the boats. The shellfish began to grow, as did the business. In the fourth year, they produced about 5,500 oysters. The market was still small, but they envisioned producing a million mollusks in the near future. The Japanese oyster was the star product.
One day Carlos went to Horcón, a fishing cove located a few kilometers further north. There, local fishermen also harvested Japanese oysters. But the color of the oysters’ flesh surprised him. “The color was not the same as the ones we had,” he said. “Ours were greener.”
The doomed years
In 2000, the National Health Service banned the commerce of green Japanese oysters and other marine resources from Ventanas because of contamination from heavy metals and fecal coliforms.
“It was a dark and very sad time,” Carlos said, his voice almost breaking. The investment and their hard work over the years was reduced to nothing. “We still had the management area, but who was going to buy from us? We experienced the greatest misery.”
The business with the canning company that bought the limpets, which were also contaminated, was as good as over, Carlos said. Tourists left the bay, scared. Restaurants closed and fishermen had to find jobs in the industrial park. Many emigrated. That same year, Carlos packed his things, said goodbye to his wife and three children and ventured south.
Carlos began working as a diver for a salmon company in Puerto Montt, a community in southern Chile, more than a thousand kilometers (600 miles) from Ventanas and just over 12 hours by road. For 10 years, he worked 24 days a month, with six days of leave. In the last six years, that changed to 20 days of work for eight of rest. During each break, Carlos got on a bus and traveled to Ventanas to see his family, then returned to Puerto Montt. “That was my life until my children finished school. Professionals,” he said proudly.
In May 2014, seated in front of a television, Carlos watched his colleagues in Ventanas hurled crabs at Codelco, the Chilean state-owned company that ran the copper smelter and refinery, and burn boats while screaming “When will it stop?!” He could not do anything from afar.
The marine conservation organization Oceana and a laboratory run by Fundación Chile, which tested clams, limpets, abalone and crabs from the region, found that all the species were contaminated with copper, arsenic and cadmium. The highest rates of contamination were found among the abalone from the management area of Ventanas, with five times more copper and four times more arsenic content than Chilean regulations allow, and five times more cadmium than what European standards allow. The crabs had four times more copper and arsenic than Chile allows.
The indignation and complaints of the fishermen had no effect. Four months after the protests, 38,700 liters (10,200 gallons) of oil spilled into the sea, according to a report from the Maritime Authority, after a connection broke between a ship and the port terminal. A second spill of about 500 liters (132 gallons) occurred in August 2015 when another ship was refueling. In 2016, another disaster joined the list when a ship leached slurry oil. The National Petroleum Company was liable for all three environmental accidents.
Almost a year after the 2014 oil spill, the non-profit Fisheries Development Institute began to investigate the impacts of the accident on marine resources. It concluded that “in general, no evidence was found that the local populations of the main species of the management areas had been directly affected by any specific environmental disturbance event such as the oil spill.”
Environmental organizations claimed that the methodology of the study had serious irregularities. However, the complaints had no impact, and no new studies were initiated.
After 16 years of exile, as Carlos likes to call that stage of his life, he returned to Ventanas to try and revive the management area — a patch of sea that has tried to survive despite everything — together with other fishermen. Today, he is the president of the union.
The fishermen now cultivate Chilean abalone. “A sacred place” is how Carlos refers to the area serving as a non-extractive reserve within the larger management area. They combine this harvesting kelp, a difficult and exhausting task, and fishing for hake, although it is scarce and its harvest is prohibited during the month of September.
In addition, companies pay the fishermen $43 for a day of shoveling the coal that the sea throws onto the sand. “It’s an incentive for us to complain less,” said one of the fishermen, who prefers to remain anonymous because his son works for the company.
Carlos has never wanted to collect coal. It’s “like a pride thing,” he said. But he does other jobs, also paid for by the companies, such as collecting algae from the Campiche estuary and cleaning the coastline. He also works as a commercial diver repairing boats and docks.
On Aug. 21 last year, residents of the communities of Quintero and Puchuncaví began to arrive at the local hospital vomiting and fainting. The first to arrive were 50 children and two adults from three schools that were evacuated quickly. According to the Valparaíso branch of the National Emergency Office, at the end of that week, 408 people had suffered from food poisoning. Monitoring carried out by the Ministry of the Environment detected 120 gases in the air, all above permissible limits. Among them was methylchloroform, a volatile liquid prohibited in Chile since 2015.
A few weeks later, on Sept. 4, a second poisoning episode affected another 100 people. Two days later, the environmental authorities delivered their verdict: “This Superintendency has reached the following conclusion: charge the company ENAP Refinerías SA, (…) for treating their liquid industrial waste under conditions other than those environmentally approved.” The company rejected the accusations and announced that it would resort to “all legal actions and rights to demonstrate that it has no connection whatsoever with the claims.”
The charges were subsequently dismissed. One year after the mass poisoning, the government said it couldn’t establish the causes for the pollution. “The poisoning events are related to VOC [volatile organic compounds]. We haven’t been able to determine the origin of these VOC, but we’ve determined they are in the air. The rest is being investigated,” Felipe Riesco, the subsecretary of environment, told the newspaper La Tercera.
Sales of abalone have stopped for now. No one wants to eat seafood from Ventanas, “the Chilean Chernobyl,” as some call it. Even the company that buys the kelp did not want to buy the last harvest. The fishermen have alternated between anger and resignation at living in a gray version of a community where they once prospered.
“Could they have seen us as a dumpsite? Like their backyard? … I don’t know how the government saw us,” said Carlos, getting flustered.
“My father died with deep anger toward these companies,” he said, his voice rising. “You can’t even imagine what he said about those scoundrels. That rage, when he died, he passed it on to me.”
Banner image by Michelle Carrere for Mongabay.