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Caleta El Quisco Fishery Project

Case Authors

Sarah Tomsky, Julia Wondolleck and Steven Yaffee, University of Michigan


Caleta El Quisco is a typical, small-scale artisanal fishing community in Chile that is located on the central coast. The community’s dive fishermen harvest the muricid snail called loco. They participated in a partnership with marine ecologists that helped usher in a new era of marine management in Chile.

The 1991 Chilean Fishing and Aquaculture Law gave property rights to fishermen and established a co-management regime between fishermen and the state. The law institutionalized Management Exploitation Areas (MEAs).

MEAs require fishers to be represented by a syndicate or union, and hire marine ecologists to conduct assessments and develop management plans. MEAs can establish rotational harvest zones and no-take zones that allow species to recover.

Although MEAs began as a strategy to manage the loco fishery, their use has been extended to other benthic fisheries. Of the 547 MEAs established along the coast, 301 are fully operational. They include 1023 square kilometers of marine area. Studies show increases in stock and landing size of species through the use of MEAs.

Although MEAs are not explicitly managed for conservation purposes, they have prompted the consideration of the ecosystem in fisheries management in Chile.

MEBM Attributes

  • Complexity: Use of scientifically-informed management plans.
  • Adaptive management: Requiring annual assessments to inform revisions to management plans.\
  • Collaboration: Use of fishermen’s unions to make collaborative decisions regarding the resource.


Mission and Primary Objectives


The mission of the 1991 Chilean Fishing and Aquaculture Law, which institutionalized many of the experimental practices in Caleta El Quisco, is to rehabilitate shellfish stocks, continue a sustainable level of exploitation for artisanal fishermen, and discourage migration of fishermen among fishing areas.


  • Confer exclusive user rights to artisanal fishers within five nautical miles of the shoreline.
  • Establish regional boundaries and require artisanal fishers to dive only within the coastal zone of their area. Boundaries are generally determined by the physical structure of the coastline.
  • Confer exclusive diving rights to registered artisanal fishing unions for specific areas of the seabed that are defined as Management and Exploitation Areas.


Key Parties

  • Fishermen’s Unions
  • Biological Consultants
  • Chilean Fisheries Undersecretary, Ministry of Economy


Program Structure

Federal Government

The Chilean fisheries undersecretary approves applications from fishing unions to establish Management Exploitation Areas (MEAs), reviews annual assessments, and approves any changes to the management plan or total allowable catch.

Fishing Unions

Fishing unions are required to hire a marine biology consultant to conduct a baseline study of proposed MEAs. The study informs resource catch quotas and the management plan. Annual assessments are required.

Fishing unions develop and implement participatory and regulatory procedures of the MEAs. Restrictions are placed on the total allowable catch. Unions can determine whether to assign quotas to individuals.

Fishing unions are responsible for guarding their MEAs and enforcing rules. Many fishing unions provide 24-hour surveillance to deter illegal poaching.


Motivations for Initiating Effort

National policy changes in Chile in 1975 allowed the export of loco and other fish and shellfish to become more lucrative. International demand, particularly from Asian markets, incentivized overexploitation in the 1980s. At the time, an open access policy governed the fisheries.

Landings of loco increased dramatically, peaked in 1980, and then decreased. Declines in loco threatened the livelihoods of the artisanal fishermen, who became more migratory and competitive, exploiting the fisheries along the coast.

Caleta El Quisco became one of the first fishing villages to experiment with new management techniques. The community was notable for its well-organized fishermen’s union. In 1989, its fishermen began working with marine biologists, who trained the fishermen in marine monitoring and assessment methods.

In 1991, the fishermen’s union developed a management plan for loco. The plan included a ban on diving in the best diving ground and used experimental rotational zones that prohibited extraction to allow for the natural restocking of loco.

By 1993, fishermen enjoyed increases in the catch of loco per unit of effort. The mean size of loco also increased in the rotational zones which translated into greater revenues for the divers.

The experience of Caleta El Quisco served as a model for the 1991 Chilean Fishing and Aquaculture Law that institutionalized many of the experimental practices into formalized Management Exploitation Areas.

Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats

The Ecosystem

Chile’s approximately 4,000 kilometer coastline is dotted with fishing coves, called caletas. These artisanal fisheries are economically important to Chile. Benthic invertebrates are the most exploited resource, with the muricid snail loco representing the most significant fishery.


Overexploitation led to fears of a collapse in the artisanal fishery. Divers had extracted the invertebrates mainly for local consumption until the 1980s, when exports to international markets increased rapidly.


Major Strategies

Management Exploitation Areas

Management Exploitation Areas (MEAs) allow collectively-organized fishermen to act as stewards of the resource using scientifically informed management plans that are approved by the federal government.

Harvesting of marine resources within a MEA is limited to the members of the respective fishing union. Restrictions govern the total allowable catch. A Fishing union can determine whether to assign individual quotas to its members.

Other management actions within each MEA include the rotation of extraction areas and establishment of no-take areas to allow for the natural restocking of species populations.

Open-access areas are subject to national restrictions.

Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation

Fishing unions are required to hire marine ecologists to conduct annual assessments of the Management Exploitation Areas. The assessments inform changes in the total allowable catch and other adjustments to the management plan.

Although fishing unions are only required to hire the consultants, most fishing unions also directly participate in the stock assessments under the guidance of the consultants.


Ecological Benefits

Studies show Management Exploitation Areas (MEAs) lead to ecological benefits. The mean size of species and fishermen’s catch per unit of effort increased. Another study found “add-on conservation benefits” for targeted and non-targeted benthic species, biodiversity, and community assemblages within three studied MEAs.

Social Benefits

MEAs give fishermen more control over the resources. They also lead to increased trust, communication and collaboration between fishermen and scientists. Fishing unions develop a stronger sense of community, and an increased sense of ownership and responsibility toward the resource.

One study, however, suggested the increased sense of ownership among fishermen has not translated into a greater understanding of ecology. Fishermen may not be sufficiently informed of the ecological implications of fishing.

Economic Gains Through Entrepreneurial Strategies

Some fishermen’s unions have experimented with entrepreneurial strategies. Fifteen fishing organizations formed a selling cooperative to guarantee a fair price from exporters. Decisions within the fishermen’s cooperative are made at three levels:

  • An assembly formed by members of the unions with the power to resolve and sanction decisions;
  • Directorates that are trusted by the assembly to take administrative decisions; and
  • Commissioners that make operational decisions concerning discipline, commercialization, and answer to the directorates and the assembly.


Factors Facilitating Progress

Marine management in Chile has been facilitated by the following factors:

  • Potential Resource Crash: The potential collapse of the loco fishery led to an agreement that the resource needed to be managed in a better way.
  • New Relationships: In Caleta El Quisco, artisanal fishers anxious to protect their livelihoods had the chance to work with university scientists. The collaboration and cooperation led to experimental management strategies. The new relationships between fishers and scientists were crucial to championing Marine Extraction Areas (MEAs).
  • State Investment in Science: Early financial investment in science from the state incentivized and supported the collaborative management experiments. Without this economic support, participation from fishermen or scientists may have been limited.
  • Well-Organized Unions: Partnerships and new management schemes were successful partly because of the pre-existing and well-organized fishing unions. They could manage the MEAs without significant outside funding.
  • Zoning and Property Rights: Fishermen gained control and ownership of the resource through the zoning and property rights schemes institutionalized by Chilean law. Local stakeholders received responsibility for the health of the ecosystem.
  • Demonstrated Benefits:The experimental MEAs demonstrated they could generate economic benefits. Without a financial incentive, local fishermen may not have embraced the legal establishment of MEAs.
  • Institutional Framework: The 1991 Chilean Fishing and Aquaculture Law provided an institutional framework that encouraged and legitimized MEAs. The law has proven instrumental in increasing fisheries management along the Chilean coast.



Marine management in Chile has encountered the following challenges:

  • Economic Drivers Dominate Decisions: Studies suggest fishermen will change the management system to maximize revenue. For instance, fishermen in Caleta El Quisco removed sea stars from the Management Exploitation Area (MEA) system. Sea stars are predators of loco. While the decision will increase the survival of loco, it affects the ecosystem.
  • Union Fishermen Game the System: The loco is a relatively immobile species compared to fish. Literature suggests union fisherman may extract loco from open-access areas, and move it into a MEA for future extraction. This creates tensions with other divers who are not part of the union, and fish within the open-access area.
  • Little Room to Establish Marine Protected Areas: MEAs have proliferated along the coast, leaving little room to establish more conservationist-oriented Marine Protected Areas. Chile manages about 150 square kilometers of marine territory according to conservationist principles, compared to 1,023 square kilometers using MEAs. Created new protected areas is a complex process.
  • Emphasis on Single-Species Management: MEA boundaries are based on geography, rather than the dynamics of the marine ecosystem. MEAs also give high priority to the management of a single species, loco.