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You would think Chileans are big on fish and seafood, given the country's 5,000 kilometers of coast. Seen on a map, one might even wonder if Chileans have enough space between the Andes mountains and the Pacific Ocean to set up cities. Of course, that is an exaggeration, but the point is that you would imagine that living practically on the shore, Chileans would eat a lot of fish. Very wrong.
A study conducted by the University of Magallanes found that Chileans are among the lowest fish consumers in the world: only 7 kilos per capita a year, compared to the 75 kilos of meat, pork and poultry they eat a year. Peruvians, for example, eat 22 kilos of fish per capita a year, while the Spanish eat more than 50 kilos.
There are cultural and economic reasons for this. For one, there is this unbreakable Chilean belief of unknown origin that if there is no meat (or chicken) on the plate, it is not a real meal. Doctors here practically force pregnant women to eat red meat, warning that their babies won’t grow well if they don’t. Beans, tofu, eggs and other alternative sources of protein don’t count.
Fish somehow doesn’t make the category, for mysterious reasons. But perhaps the main reason is price. Fish and seafood are so expensive that it is impossible to eat them on a regular basis. Forget about buying fresh fish in the market or supermarkets. It is inaccessible. Years ago, it was cheaper to buy a kilo of hake than a can of tuna fish. Now it is the other way around.
Previously, fish here was cheap, good and healthy. Then came the big fish factory ships that started wiping out fish resources along the coast, and the contamination caused by salmon pens that affected the marine habitat and drove original species out. Local fishermen had nothing to fish anymore, and the local fish-sellers started replacing hake and conger eel with part of the salmon harvest.
Overexploitation sent some species even further south, and most of what is actually captured is exported. Chile is known for the excellent quality of its fish and seafood ... abroad. What is left for the domestic market is just a small fraction, and often what wasn’t good enough for foreign buyers. And then there is red tide, a poisonous microalgae that periodically attacks in certain regions, infecting seafood and limiting extraction.
(Angelmo, the local fish market and tourist attraction near Puerto Montt, a thousand kilometers south of Santiago).
I remember living in the southern fishing city of Puerto Montt in the late 1980s, when the salmon industry was just experimenting with its first salmon farms. I ate a lot of the popular merluza (hake), congrio (conger eel) and reineta, typical fish species here. I also ate clams and razor clams, which I bought at the local fish market without dreading what it would do to my budget. This is where I actually learned to like fish. Salmon was a scarce luxury.
I was in Puerto Montt last year and went to eat at the local fish market Angelmo, a popular tourist attraction where 20 years earlier I used to buy fish and seafood to prepare at home. It was hard to get anything that wasn’t salmon. But what was really shocking was this: The local supermarkets didn’t sell fish. Not just that day, but in general. They have no frozen or fresh fish on sale. I asked how that could happen in this coastal, fishing city. We don’t have fish, said the manager, because people just don’t buy it. It’s too expensive.
So just imagine what is happening now, on the eve of Easter, when Catholics are not supposed to eat meat, and they flock to the market to buy fish and seafood for the long weekend. The price of fish and seafood has gone up 100 percent or more this week. Sellers say it is because of red tide, but we all know better.