This project focuses on the artisanal fisheries sector in Chile. The majority of this sector is made up of divers and collectors whose catch comprises a whole host of different shellfish.
This is just a short post to show you a few pictures of what it’s like to work as a chilean shellfish diver….in this case…diving for razor clams.
It’s normally an early start, but one that is determined by the tide. Once the divers are on the bottom, it is no fun trying to fight against an ebb or flood tide (slack water is always preferred).
It’s bread, bread, bread on the boat – as well as much of Chile. Bread and coffee to start the day before of work.
As with much of the UK’s maritime / fishing community, religion (in Chile it’s Catholocism) and superstition are commonplace.
The site we arrive at is a known site for razor clams. It is managed by a local syndicate of fishers and boat operators and is only fished (supposedly) by those who have licences and are part of the syndicate. This way, everyone knows who is fishing roughly where, and there is an approximate idea of fishing effort in each area.
Upon reaching the site the alpha diving flag is hoisted to partner the La Estrella Solitaria (the Chilean national flag – “The Lonely Star”) and the day begins.
The work gear is taken from its diesel stained bags and laid on deck for a quick drip dry. Then it’s a strip and rub down with shampoo and water to don the thick (summer ≈16mm / winter ≈ 22mm) two piece hooded wetsuits.
In such buoyant suits, the divers need a significant amount of lead to keep them from bobbing around on the surface (waist, back and legs / ankle weights). These compressed neoprene suits, although thick and sturdy-looking, actually need replacing every 3 to 4 months depending on what species is being fished and the sites that are visited (this determines how much contact a diver has with rocks and the bottom).
Once the divers are ready the air compressor is filled with fuel and fired up.
Then it’s time to dive! Regulator in, lie on the deck of the boat and a smooth plop into the water.
Whilst in the water the three divers work in separate directions so as not to replicate their work. The tender who is left on the surface makes sure that the umbilical hoses don’t kink (too heavily), the compressor keeps running and the anchor does not drag and tighten the hoses of the divers…too much.
When the catch bag is full, the diver pulls hard on the umbilical until the tender pays attention. The weighted diver is then pulled to the surface by the tender on the umbilical.
It seems as though health and safety in Chile exists but is rarely adhered to…at least by the fishermen. Dive decompression tables are ignored, with dive times well exceeding safety limits. Ascents as quick as the tender can pull on the umbilical (which is pretty fast) and little care about decompression sickness in general all make for a stark contrast to UK divers and work conditions. This, however, I was told “is not something to worry about” as the local dive chamber is very cheap!
The whole process is repeated until a) the tide turns / gets too strong to dive b) the divers decide they have made enough money from their catch that day or c) the next site is too far away to warrant an extra dive.
When the boat arrives back at the harbour, a representative from the Chilean Fisheries Consultancy – IFOP (Instituto de Fomento Pesquero) comes to weigh the catches (on the dock) and record the origin of the catch. This means it can hopefully be traced from origin to market.
The fishers that I was with spend half of their year fishing for shellfish, and the other fishing for octopus using harpoons. Neither easy tasks in my book. When I asked them “When do you have days off?”, the response was a rowdy laugh. When I repeated the question the answer was Christmas, Easter and when we get ill. These guys work long and hard, bring home a very modest wage and have a job that is severely limited by health / age. Once diving certificates expire and medicals are not renewed by the doctor, most become deck hands / tenders or work in the harbour.
Unfortunately, I did not manage to get on board a Loco boat for reasons I will explain another time.