Chilean fishers, TURFs,and human-centred marine conservation programmes

Along Chile’s long and diverse coastline, nearly 100,000 artisanal fishers catch about half of all seafood landing in the country through a diverse set of activities, which include intertidal gathering, offshore fishing, and diving for nearshore resources. These fishers are therefore central to marine conservation for such programmes to succeed. In this article we describe our efforts to design a conservation programme that is fisher-centred and how it is evolving to provide more benefits to artisanal fishing communities and achieving scale within Chile.

TURFs as an opportunity for marine conservation

Territorial user rights for fisheries (TURFs) have been promoted as a tool which can enable the sustainable use of marine resources by providing access rights and incentives to fishing communities. Throughout Chile, groups of artisanal fishers have organized into associations and gained TURF rights to extract nearshore resources from distinct stretches of the coast. The policy has been in place for over three decades and there are now hundreds of active TURFs along the coast. They make up a substantial part of the coastal seascape in Chile: TURFs tend to be roughly 100 hectares in size and surrounded by open access areas. To be granted a TURF, artisanal fisher associations must undertake a baseline study of the area and develop management plans that need government approval. Surveillance and enforcement by the community is required and it is forbidden to extract any species not included in the management plan. For example, diving for benthic resources is usually restricted to a few times a month and the extracted resources are around 10-30 percent of the total income for an association.

Researchers have demonstrated that TURFs have higher levels of biodiversity compared to open access areas, and those levels increase with local enforcement to prevent poaching. Researchers have also demonstrated that biodiversity levels inside TURFs are lower than in marine protected areas, and that enforcement is a key aspect in determining biodiversity levels. The combination of part-time use, strong enforcement, and high levels of biodiversity has sparked dialogues about TURFs playing a role in the economic diversification of small-scale fishing communities. Both the social and ecological conditions are present to design a voluntary conservation programme that could incentivize additional biodiversity benefits. The combination of fishing associations and TURF policy creates user rights, strong local governance, and a stewardship ethic. That same combination creates the opportunity to increase biodiversity by increasing enforcement and creating a marine reserve inside TURFs.

Human-centred programme design

Seizing upon this opportunity, we embarked on designing a voluntary conservation programme associated with TURFs. We had strong evidence that biodiversity benefits would be generated if a fishing association entered into an agreement to set aside at least 15 hectares of its TURF as a no-take marine reserve, and agree to conduct anti-poaching surveillance. What we did not know was if fishers would participate in such a programme. Suspecting that programme desirability would be low if we designed a programme through the lens of protecting marine species, we embraced a human-centred approach. We used focus groups and surveys (and some statistical modeling) to understand fishers’ preferences on different aspects of a potential programme, such as the contract length, payments, perceived benefits, types of surveillance systems (e.g., land-based video surveillance), and biodiversity monitoring requirements.

Doing so allowed us to design a programme that was highly desirable, as well as identify highly undesirable programme structures. For example, fishers preferred shorter renewable contracts compared to longer multi-year contracts. It became clear that programme desirability was key to scaling a marine conservation programme in Chile. For example, it is impossible to reach 50 percent participation with a highly undesirable programme—even if you pay the fishing association $9,000 a year to support enforcement costs. In contrast, with a highly desirable programme, participation was over 50 percent with only a $3,000 payment.

Overall, our research revealed important factors that influenced participation in voluntary conservation programmes. While payments, for example, served as a relatively strong factor to convince fishers to opt-in to a programme, their ability to do so substantially diminished as their attitude became negative, trust decreased, or dependence on fishing decreased. In fact, our results suggest that payments alone are insufficient to attract enough participation by Chilean fishers to scale the programme and deliver significant environmental benefits.

Launching the programme

Armed with an evidence-based programme design, we began piloting the programme with two fishing communities. We partnered with a Chilean technology company that provided land-based surveillance cameras and machine learning technology. Fishing communities have direct access to video and machine learning alerts which provide them with an additional surveillance tool, while providing the programme a means of independently assessing compliance. We designed a biodiversity and fishing monitoring programme to track the impact of the programme, which included control sites and was implemented with the fishing associations. We created annual contracts with the fishing associations, which provided a small payment to the association to help assist with increased anti-poaching surveillance and outlined sanctions in the case the conditions of the contract were broken. With funding from US foundations, we were able to pilot the programme while also continuing to collect data from fishers with surveys and focus groups, in order to make design changes to better align the programme with fishers’ perspectives and needs.

During the first few years, with feedback from participating associations, we incrementally improved the programme and overcame challenges. The reliability of surveillance cameras placed in remote marine environments was a major challenge, which required multiple rounds of improvements. Trying to balance cost-effectiveness with scientific rigor, we struggled with developing diving monitoring protocols that were feasible and affordable, while still being robust. We modified the programme incentives, replacing annual enforcement payments with a small grants programme. Fishing associations are now eligible to apply for small annual grants for projects that improve or complement the outcomes of their reserve. After several rounds of improvements, the marine reserve programme was up and running in three fishing communities in central Chile.

Scaling the Capital Azul Marine Reserve Programme

In 2019, we pivoted our efforts toward scaling the programme. This involved four main activities: 1) building human capital to run the programme, 2) conducting social science research focused on scaling, 3) developing a sustainable financing model, and 4) increasing the involvement of the broader local communities in the programme.

We formally established Capital Azul as a Chilean NGO. Supported by a board and programme partners, Capital Azul maintains new and existing relationships with fishing communities, supports surveillance activities, and conducts the annual monitoring of the reserves. The marine reserve programme currently consists of a network of five reserves in central Chile. Only 200 km from the capital Santiago, this region is one of the most densely populated in the country, with no national marine protected areas. Thus, the network is informally complementing the existing national protected network, and serves as a highvisibility example of a voluntary conservation programme to the hundreds of thousands of Chilean tourists that visit the region during the summer months.

We have pivoted our research toward other important questions about scaling conservation programmes, while still focused on designing the programme through the lens of its users—fishers. For example, we are exploring the impact of where the payments come from on participation. It turns out that willingness to participate is greater if programme funding comes from revenue generated from industries interested in offsetting their environmental impact compared to revenue generated from sustainable seafood premiums. Participation also differs, by as much as 30 percent, depending on how familiar you are with similar programmes. These results help us consider programmatic design changes that may improve programme desirability and thus participation, as the programme scales. It also informs our financing strategy. Today, participation is not the limiting factor in scaling the programme in Chile. Thus, much of the work is now focused on developing financing models to be able to better scale the programme.

The journey ahead

As Capital Azul matures as an organization, we are starting to engage broader coastal communities within the programme. This is based on the recognition that collaboration and support across different local actors will be needed for the programme to be a success over the longer term. Taking an approach that blends community psychology with collaborative arts, we are engaging communities in three distinct ways. First, we are collaborating with communities to define what marine reserves mean for them. Our goal is to create space with communities to integrate local knowledge into the different dimensions of the Capital Azul Programme, with the hope that it will result in an increase in both the value and appreciation of the programme.

“A child can observe today that some marine life, like reef fish and clams, are gone from our fishing grounds. It should bring her joy to know our marine reserve is important, because from that space, fish, abalone, limpets, and more are going to thrive and reproduce.”

— Artisanal Fisher, 2020

Second, we are mapping the community stakeholders that influence and are influenced by the reserve network. Our goal is to conduct a network analysis for each participating community, as actors differ across locations. Some actors seem important across all communities, such as local municipalities that can support the programme in different ways. Other actors, such as tourism operators and educators, can potentially benefit directly via synergistic activities—including potential collaboration across communities. It is also important to identify stakeholders that are potential detractors or that could be harmed from the programme. In one community, for example, fishers recognized young spear fishers as detractors of the programme. When we talked with several of them, however, their views were more nuanced and several actually expressed support for the programme and the desire to collaborate.

Third, we are using collaborative art as a tool to explore communities’ shared meanings around marine conservation. Collaborative art practice involves artists and communities working closely together as a way to explore engagement and worldviews. Our goal is to bring community members together to share perceptions and values on marine conservation and collectively express them through visual arts. While our broader community engagement is new, early results are encouraging. With the Capital Azul team, fishers in the town Zapallar recently created cardboard figures of local rocky reef fish, which were then put on display at the beach inside a chinguillo—a type of local collecting bag used in the ocean. Beachgoers were invited to write questions to fishers about the marine reserve. This process served as a tool for community engagement and helped fishers visualize the repercussions of the programme in the broader community, as well as encouraging a feeling of pride and commitment.


A fisher-centred approach that integrates ecology, social psychology, and design has played a prominent role in the ongoing development of Capital Azul and its marine reserve programme. It has allowed us to design a programme that is desirable by fishers.

“The place that we are going to leave is important, the cameras we are installing and the entire conservation plan. It will benefit our TURFs, as there are areas that are depleted. In a couple of years, this will be a wonderful thing.”

— Artisanal Fisher, 2020

Doing so has also allowed us to focus on other important aspects necessary for the programme to scale, such as human capital, programme management, community involvement, and financing. Without sufficient participation, voluntary community-based conservation programmes will not scale. The necessary social science research is rarely conducted a priori to understand the conditions under which a programme will attract widespread support and participation. Increasing participation is a function of the overall structure and administration of a programme. By focusing on empathy for participants and learning from the rapid prototyping of programme concepts, we have been able to implement a new approach for marine conservation in Chile that appears to be working—producing social and ecological benefits for local fishing communities and the country.

Further Reading

Gelcich, S. and C.J. Donlan. 2015. Incentivizing biodiversity conservation with artisanal fishing communities through territorial user rightsand business model innovation. Conservation Biology 29:1076-1085

Sorice, M.S., C.J. Donlan, K.J. Boyle, W. Xu, S. Gelcich. 2018. Scaling participation in payments for ecosystem services programs. PLoS ONE 13(3): e0192211

Sorice, M.G. and C.J. Donlan. 2015. A human-centered framework for innovation in conservation incentive programs. Ambio 44:788-792

This article is from issue


2021 Jun