Case Study

Juan Fernandez Islands Demersal Fisheries (Chile)

Authors: Kristin Kleisner, Erica Cunningham, Kendra Karr, Julio Chamorro, and Layla Osman

System Overview

The Juan Fernandez Islands (JFI) are located off the coast of central Chile between 32.81°S and 33.81°S and include the Robinson Crusoe and Santa Clara Islands (RC-SC) subsystem and the Alejandro Selkirk Island (AS). The distance from shore of these islands and seamounts and the presence of unique oceanographic features has promoted strong connectivity within and between other systems, which supports a high degree of marine and terrestrial endemism. In 1935, the Chilean government declared the JFI as a National Park, and in 1977 they were designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve due to their significant biodiversity and ecological importance. More recently, in 2016 and with community support, the Chilean government designated a multipurpose marine protected area and several marine parks around the islands and seamounts in the archipelago. In 2018, a collaboration between the community members and the government led to the development and management of one of the world’s largest multipurpose MPA (National Geographic, 2015; Mongabay, 2019; Ernst-Elizalde et al., 2020); 262,000 square kilometers of ocean around the Juan Fernández archipelago was declared a fully protected marine park by the Chilean government. The MPA is multi-use, encompassing no-take zones and allowing sustainable fishing by the artisanal fleet within the archipelago area (Muñoz, 2021). Since its inception, the Juan Fernandez National Park has become an exemplary model for spatial management approaches.

There are two main towns within the JFI, Juan Bautista in the RC-SC and Rada de la Colonia, which is a temporary fishing village inhabited from October to May on AS. For more than 100 years, fishing on these isolated islands has traditionally been by locals who possess an effective tenure system of almost 4,000 ‘Marcas’, which are unique family-owned fishing areas (Zylich and van der Meer, 2015). These Marcas are transferable through inheritance only to family members by local agreement. This arrangement has discouraged outsiders and newcomers from fishing and has kept effort levels and fishing fleet size regulated. In addition, lobster fishing is regulated by seasonal closures, gear restrictions, minimum size limits, and restrictions for egg-carrying females (Eddy et al., 2010; Ernst-Elizalde et al., 2010). The success of the lobster fishery can be credited to a tenure system, simple regulations, and respect for the environment (Ernst et al., 2013). Due to the isolation of the JF islands, the community tends to be very tight-knit, and the fishery, which is run by locals, is highly organized and well-enforced. Monitoring is by a local syndicate and individuals in the fishery who are part of the syndicate are compensated for monitoring efforts.

Resilience Attributes and Linkages

It is the combination of strong ecological resilience assets, in particular high biodiversity and a healthy ecosystem, with strong social-ecological resilience attributes, including social cohesion and capital, a strong sense of place attachment and stewardship for natural resources, a resilience mindset and high learning capacity, that has conferred resilience to the JFI demersal fisheries to climate change and other stressors. Additionally, relatively high levels of agency and leadership and initiative have contributed to effective governance. While there is limited infrastructure on the island and not a lot of technology transfer, governance tends to be participatory, equitable and inclusive, and enables strong local leadership and initiative of locals.

The location of the JFI fisheries inside a protected area confers a good deal of ecological resilience. In particular, in Chile, fisheries recognized by the government are required to have a fishery management plan (FMP). Fisheries that are located within an MPA and have conservation objectives within the government endorsed FMP will also develop a MPA management plan (Gaymer et al., 2021). Traditionally, lobster was the only commercial fishery, and the multispecies demersal fishery was considered subsistence (Porobic et al. 2019; Karr et al. 2021). Since 2016, the demersal fishery was recharacterized as commercial and the local community and the national government are in the process of designing a ‘climate resilient’ FMP for this fishery (Karr et al., 2021), that will include ecosystem-based management principles, a comprehensive plan for data collection and monitoring and adaptive harvest control rules that should be more responsive to climate and other effects on abundance levels (Kritzer et al. 2019). The demersal fishery is targeted by small-scale artisanal fishers and fishing pressure has remained low. There were two stocks, orange roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus) and alfonsino (Berix splendens), targeted by the mainland-based industrial fishery, which operates on seamounts. However, both of these fisheries are considered over-exploited and are currently closed. Among the local JF fishers, there’s good compliance with the spatial protections in place and they are committed to the rules and self-enforcement.

With the commercial designation of the multispecies finfish fishery, the JF community is in the process of building additional infrastructure to add value to the fishery. In particular, they are building a processing plant to be able to fish and process new species with a goal of getting higher prices by exporting to the mainland. The JF islanders have traditionally exported lobster as it was the most valuable stock they fished. However, there was a realization that this focus on a single species was limiting their resilience, especially to shocks such as El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), tsunamis, and the global pandemic. Diversification of the demersal fishery and development of the supply chain for these stocks is therefore seen as an economic safety net, helping to confer socio-economic resilience.

A more recent stressor has been observed with a tsunami that hit in 2010, which is believed to be contributing to an ecosystem shift exemplified by an outbreak of urchins. The JF fishers would like to reap some benefit from the urchin outbreak and have been contemplating the development of a new fishery. However, there is a catch: while it’s ideal to harvest the urchins at a younger age to prevent overgrazing on the reefs, the gonads are then not large enough to be valuable on the export market. There are also logistical challenges to exporting the gonads to the mainland.

Given the limited socio-economic flexibility in terms of income diversity, combined with a strong sense of place attachment, there is a clear understanding of the need for strong, forward-looking fisheries management and conservation to preserve stocks and assets long-term under climate change and other stressors. For this reason, the JF islanders place high value on an effective administration plan for the MPA that is congruent with the FMP, and the need for management of all resources on the island to be governed at a systems level. The locals want more responsive governance at the national and regional scales and are actively seeking out ways to make this happen. They understand that there is a lot to do to ensure that the science and monitoring of their fisheries are in place to allow for more responsive management, but they see this as a long-term investment in their well-being. Participation and equitability are prized within the governance system. However, there are limited opportunities for women, who are active in the fishery, so this is an area where inclusion could be improved. Overall, the tight-knit societal connections and strong sense of resource stewardship has supported the development of leaders in the community who have helped to catalyze the uptake of a strong management and conservation ethic.

Historically, the strong social network and cohesion within the local community in combination with the strong sense of place and appreciation for the cultural and ecological value of the marine resources in the JF islands has likely contributed to the drive for education and knowledge among the islanders. Many of the locals leave the island to receive higher education, including graduate degrees. Local and traditional knowledge of the fisheries and associated resources is also highly prized. Additionally, the JF fishers have welcomed knowledge and learning from researchers and scientists from universities and NGOs on the mainland, especially as they develop aspects of their climate resilient FMP.


Overall, the JFI fisheries are a unique example of resilience in practice. The location of these biodiverse fisheries inside a marine reserve in combination with the locals’ strong sense of stewardship toward their resources has helped to confer strong protection to the marine resources and maintain robust stock sizes over time. Additionally, the incredibly strong social bonds, resilience mindset and desire for knowledge are all critical factors contributing to the improvement of the resilience of the JF islanders and their resources. While many of the adaptive management approaches are still in the design phase, the dedication and passion of the locals for their home and the important natural resources it offers give hope that when implemented the resilience of fisheries to climate change and other acute stressors will be bolstered.


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Eddy, T., Gardner J.P.A., & Pérez-Matus, A. (2010). Applying fishers’ ecological knowledge to construct past and future lobster stocks in the Juan Fernández Archipelago, Chile. Public Library of Science One.

Ernst-Elizalde, B., Manríquez-Angulo, P., Orensanz, J. M., Roa, R., ChamorroSolís, J., and Parada-Velíz, C. (2010). Strengthening of a Traditional Territorial Tenure System Through Protagonism in Monitoring Activities by Lobster Fishermen from the Juan Fernández Islands, Chile. Bulletin of Marine Science, 86: 315–338.

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Gaymer, CF, Garay-Flühmann, R., Aburto, J., Varas-Belemmi, K., Petit-Vega, R., Olivares, M., Hinojosa, IA, Ernst, B., González. S., Bodini, A., Sfeir, R., Friedlander, A., Wilhelm, A. & Chamorro, C. (2021). “Diseño de un Plan de Manejo para el Área Marina Costera Protegida de Múltiples Usos Mar de Juan Fernández (AMCP-MU MJF) y Planes Generales de Administración para Parques Marinos Contiguos”. Licitación ID: 608897-76-le19. Informe Final. ESMOI – Facultad de Ciencias del Mar-Universidad Católica del Norte. 208 pp.

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Acknowledgments: We are grateful for detailed knowledge of the Juan Fernandez Island fisheries, which was provided by interviews with three experts: Erica Cunningham, Kendra Karr and Layla Osman who have worked closely with local fishers and fisheries experts groups representing the Juan Fernandez Archipelago since 2017. These local experts groups include: the Juan Fernández Archipelago Fishermen Association, the Independent Fishermen’s Union of Alejandro Selkirk Island, the University of Conception, the Undersecretary of Fisheries and Aquaculture (Subpesca; La Subsecretaria de Pesca y Acuicultura), and the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Service (Sernapesca; Servicio Nacional de Pesca y Acuicultura).

Photo: Fishers in the Juan Fernandez Islands, Chile. © Julio Chamorro