Volume 50, Issue 1 p. 76-89

Fishers who don't fish

Precarity and distributive labor on Chile's coastal frontier

Eric H. Thomas

Corresponding Author

Eric H. Thomas

Department of Environmental Conservation, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA


Email: [email protected]

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First published: 13 January 2023


In 2018, an unprecedented red tide prompted Chile's Ministry of Health to close fisheries throughout the country's southern Aysén Region. The disaster heightened the precarity of “paper fishers,” or those who seldom fish but deftly navigate Chile's neoliberal fisheries management system. Amid the crisis, these fishers performed valuable distributive labor. They connected benefits from transferable fishing quotas to community-based networks, persuaded officials to recognize additional claimants, and redistributed cash in their communities. This enabled fishers to access public funds when fishing was impossible and strengthened community solidarity in the face of precarity. Yet it also required that claims for financial compensation be legible to state officials, and it prevented political actions that would have disrupted the state-backed aquaculture industry, despite the latter's contribution to the red tide. Thus, neoliberal distributive programs that depend on the commodification of nature simultaneously benefit rural communities in crisis and facilitate the displacement of beneficiaries.