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North Pacific Fisherman Rebuild Chilean Island Fleet

Nov 01, 2010 | Don Mc Manman-Pacific Fisherman

In only a few weeks, North Pacific fisher­ men collected $84,000 to save fishing on an island you've probably never heard of.

Members of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers spearheaded the effort, and the industry responded.

A massive earthquake hit Chile in February. Scientists measured it at 8.8-a killer. Buildings collapsed. Roads were ripped apart. But 400 miles to the west, on a lonely dot in the Pacific, a tsunami destroyed a fishing community's only way to make a living.

The only industry for the people who live on Robinson Crusoe Island is fishing for spiny lobster for live export to the mainland, where they are prized. The island was in the direct path of the Chilean tsunami.

Lives were saved only because of early warning. People scrambled to high ground on the hilly island. However, the fishermen lost boats, motors, pots, radios, and both winches they used to pull their boats ashore.

Lobster fishing was gone. The people were barely able to conduct their subsistence fishing. Literally, their only way to survive had been destroyed.

The islanders keep their small, open boats at mooring buoys or winched ashore. The tsunami destroyed some boats and scattered the rest. Waterlogged outboard motors were useless. All the gear was gone.

Robinson Crusoe is part of a three-island grouping called Juan Fernandez Islands. Juan Fernandez is the traditional name of what is now called-in hopes of increasing tourism-Robinson Crusoe Island. A sailor was marooned there 300 years ago. His four years of loneliness gave Daniel Defoe the idea for Robinson Crusoe.

How the news from Robinson Crusoe reached crabbers who normally fish out of Dutch Harbor -12,000 miles to the north-is a story of serendipity.

A few years ago, a guy named Billy Ernst attended the University of Washington, focusing on marine biology. He later became a professor in Chile and was working with the island people to improve the lobster business. Once communications were back up following the quake, he learned what happened to the island.

Ernst turned to his contacts in the North Pacific. He described the disaster to someone from his Seattle days: Edward Poulsen, now executive director of Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers.

"I forwarded the message to other guys in the organization, and they said, 'Hey! We can get behind this."

The issue was straight forward, and that appealed to the crabbers, according to Poulsen.

It was easy to define the problem and a solution, according to Poulsen. "Eighty­-thousand dollars was the solution. And the benefits were apparent. You can make a huge impact for a little money."

A steering committee formed, including other industry members. Along the way, another Northwesterner became involved. Peter Hodum teaches conservation and ecology at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. He also is the co­director of the Juan Fernandez Islands Conservancy and works with Professor Ernst.
"The fishermen lost everything. Everything," Hodum said. "The first thing we had to do is make an inventory of all the materials lost by the fishermen."
An appeal to replace the Robinson Crusoe gear went out to the entire North Pacific fishing industry. Crabbers, trawlers, and longliners that deliver to Alaskan ports responded, including both catcher boats and catcher-processors.

Within four weeks, industry contributions enabled the steering committee to go shopping. Jenni Klein coordinated the project that packed a 20-foot shipping container with web, winches, line, hooks, buoys, fishing knives, GPS sets, radios, personal floatation devices, foul weather gear, outboard motors-just about everything imaginable to restart this artisanal fishery.

Many of the boats, although bruised in the huge wave, were salvageable. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization donated eight new boats.

In the North Pacific, many of the local vendors supported the aid effort by selling the products at cost."The extra money was used to purchase materials for the construction of winch sheds and a fishermen's hall, which the fishermen will build themselves".
Hodum was on the island when the container arrived.

“The day of distribution, I was at the dock," Hodum said. "I've been down there for 10 years. I’m very close to the community. It was the first time since the wave that those fishermen showed emotion. There was laughter. There were jokes. They were fundamentally grateful. I don't know how many came to me to thank their fishing Brethren who made it possible."

To see the gear delivered to the Crusoe fishermen, go to:, and click on the link "video and photos".

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