Peace Corps Was The Start Of A Long Road
I arrived in Chile in September of 1966, in the middle of the annual Independence Day celebrations. My group was trained in Albuquerque, NM, to work with credit co-operatives. My first post was the town of Quillota, a quiet agricultural town about 80 miles from Santiago, the capital.
My first months were spent making tentative attempts at doing my job, reading books from my book locker, riding my bicycle around town, and taking the train to the port of Valparaiso to take Spanish lessons and see my Peace Corps buddies and buy a "Time" magazine to keep in touch with whatever was happening in the rest of the world.
I soon realized that the persistently high rates of inflation militated against the success of the credit co-operatives, and requested to be transferred to a fishing or agriculture co-op group, in order to apply the training I had received to a productive activity which would tend to adjust to the general level of prices over time.
My request was granted and in April, 1967, I arrived in the port of San Antonio to advise the local fishermen´s co-op on business matters. My experience in the fishing activity was limited, at that time, to several trips with my grandfather to catch bluefish off the New Jersey coast, during which I mostly vomited mightily.
But back to Chile.... I soon learned that the term "fishermen´s co-operative" was a bit of an oxymoron. It turned out that the fishermen in the co-op mostly operated very small boats and had excluded the fishermen who owned and worked on the more productive boats, and this second group was anxious to have a co-op of its own in order to have access to some government credit programs.
After several months of unsuccessfully trying to get the two groups to unite so that the original co-op could grow, I agreed to help the second group form their own co-operative.
We got the co-op formed and authorized over the course of about a year, during which I learned a lot about fishing and decided to make it my career path.
There was a fishery development project in Chile at the time, under the auspices of the UN´s Food and Agriculture Organization, and I developed a close relationship with several of the specialists. They would come to San Antonio to give talks to the fishermen about stuff like echo-sounders and fish handling, and they would lend us equipment to help raise the productivity of the boats in their different fisheries.
I would go along with my fishermen friends, fishing for hake and croaker and kingklip, and finally for swordfish, vomiting mightily for at least the first 24 hours of each trip, while we would try out the equipment the F.A.O. guys were lending us. I was in heaven.
The co-op, meanwhile, was coming along nicely. It had a very active president and several very sharp and comitted members, and of course all the members were really fired up about what they were doing. They rented a small boatyard in order to have a place to paint and repair their boats, and sold spare parts and paint to the members to finance their operations. And with me there, able to give a helping hand with organizational matters, for free, they got over the startup period handily, got their legal charter, and began to expand their activities.
My wife and I left Chile in August of 1968, and I returned to school to finish my B.A. and begin my preparation for a career in fisheries.
The problem was that I had majored in American Culture, and they don´t have a lot of courses in fisheries in that area. So I had to decide: do I change my major to Marine Biology and essentially start my undergrad education over, or is there something else that will take me into fisheries on a shorter path?
I guess the smart thing would have just been to go get a job on a fishing boat, but the "international expert" bug had bitten me, and I knew the only way I could go down that road was with some academic cred.
So I finished my B.A. in American Culture, and enrolled in grad school in Resource Economics in order to polish my CV.
During that time, I missed San Antonio terribly. Don´t ask me why; San Antonio is not an attractive town. But I always had the nagging thought: "How can San Antonio be a poor town, when it has a good port, a lot of fish, decent boats, and a lot of competent fishermen?"; "What´s holding it back?" So my education in economics helped a lot in answering those questions.
Grad school was great; they wound up giving me a fellowship, and I did my dissertation research in Mexico, studying the shrimp industry. Do I need to tell you that it´s serious fun to eat fresh shrimp on the beach in Mazatlan, washing it down with copious drafts of Cerveza Pacifico?
After grad school I immediately went to work in a F.A.O. fishery development project in Mexico, and after a couple of years as a consultant, I found myself in Chile again. I had just finished a survey of artisan fishing in Ecuador for USAID, and it was the first time I´d been back to South America since 1968, so I decided to take a couple of weeks off and visit my fishermen buddies in San Antonio to see how they were doing.
It was April of 1974, seven months after the "golpe militar". The economy was on its back; my fishermen friends were on their backs; there was a curfew at 11 PM. It was not a pretty sight.
But the co-op we had formed had survived just fine. They had bought a refrigerated truck which generated enough revenue to cover their fixed costs, and they had begun to sell diesel fuel to their members, so they weren´t hurting too bad.
The problem was that the fish the members caught was almost worthless.
Long story short: One thing led to another, and I stayed in Chile, trying to get a fish exporting business going with zero capital. Fortunately, I could fall back on my economics background and do some consulting whenever I needed to raise some cash to keep the wolf from the door.
I started exporting fish in 1976, and after a lot of "saltos y pedos", built a small freezing plant in 1982. That same year, we started experimenting with a cool new way to catch swordfish, and it worked. It worked so well that the artisan fishing fleet in San Antonio grew by quantum leaps, and the total annual catch of swordfish went from 140 tons in 1978 to 6500 tons in 1992, levelling off after that. A lot of fishermen made a lot of money during that time. Some invested their profits wisely and today are successful "empresarios pesqueros", and I am very proud of them.
I did OK too, and still live in San Antonio where I continue to process and export fish which I buy exclusively from the artisan fishermen who have grown old with me, and of course from their sons as well.