El Nino behind them, Chile fishermen revel in shrimp

The sky was overcast and there was a chill in the noonday air. ''A good day for the fishermen,'' said Zunilda Troncha Marin, glancing out at the sea as she served the tasty erizos (sea urchins) she had just prepared. ''The boats will come home soon with a good catch.

''Come back tomorrow and have erizos again,'' she called as she scooted off to serve others at Restaurante Miramar on the beach of this small village on Chile's Pacific coast.

Within an hour, the boats and their crews of four began straggling in. Friendly shouts from young boys welcomed each new arrival as the youths kept eager eyes on the horizon for the boats carrying their fathers. When they eventually came in, fathers and sons gave one another warm hugs.

And true to Zunilda's words, the catch that afternoon was good. ''Not as good as it should be,'' said one fisherman to no one in particular, ''but better than we expected.''

Actually, after several lean months when Pacific coastal waters were upset by the warm ''El Nino'' current, which has caused havoc for all Pacific fisheries, things are getting better.

For Chile, a good catch is extremely important. Over the past 10 years, Chileans have turned fishing into a major export. In 1973, the nation exported a mere $22 million worth of fish products. But by 1982, the total had reached $410 million. Export projections for 1985 go to $600 million.

Most, if not all, of Quintay's catch will remain in Chile, but there is a good market for it. Fish brokers from Valparaiso, Chile's main Pacific port, and elsewhere regularly stop at this little town of 500 residents to pick up a good portion of its daily catch.

Some of the brokers stayed away during the problem with El Nino when catches were slim, but they are again making the long trek into Quintay. On one recent afternoon, a dozen brokers with small pickup trucks waited for the boats to come in.

''Today's catch was the best I've had in six months,'' said one ruddy-faced veteran of the sea whose calloused hands told of a lifetime of fishing.

For as long as anyone here can recall, fishing has been the mainstay of Quintay. Up the coast a bit, there are some bungalows and small homes taking the occasional tourist, but it is fishing that dominates everything here.

''Did you see that whale today?'' asked Juan Manual as he talked with another fisherman as they mended nets. ''He must have weighed 10,000 kilos.''

His fellow fisherman grunted and said: ''I'm glad those big ones are protected. I never liked it when they used to bring in those whales.''

The fisherman referred to a time when Quintay was a bit more than a sleepy fishing port. Between 1939 and 1968, Lever Brothers had a huge whaling facility here. The stonework of that old factory hangs over the southern end of the bay in Quintay, a stark reminder of the past.

There aren't too many around who remember when the factory was established. But many recall when it closed. That occurred with international prohibitions on whaling - Chile supported a ban, and the facility was forced to close.

It had never employed many residents of Quintay. Lever Brothers preferred the chilotes, the Chileans from Chiloe, in the south. But local residents ran restaurants and performed other services for the thousand-odd employees of the whaling station.

''It was a very busy time,'' said Hector Salazar, as he cleaned fish for his evening dinner. He no longer fishes himself. ''I did that for 30 years, but now my sons do it,'' he says.

His sons get up at 4 in the morning and head out to sea long before the sky brightens. ''They are home in the middle of the afternoon but there were times I did not come home until late at night,'' Hector says. ''The fishing was best in the morning, but sometimes there would be surprises and good catches in the afternoon, too.''

His sons stayed out late during the season of El Ninno. But they did not net many more fish. There were several months when fishing wasn't profitable. But that is changing now.

As the fishing boats come in on recent afternoons, their bottoms are covered with shrimps, crabs, erizos, and other fish.

Elsewhere in Chile, the military government and its supporters are celebrating the 10th anniversary of military rule. But here in Quintay, the talk is only of the catch, the price of fish, and the fisherman's life.

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