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Shedding light on the underworld of fisheries

September 12, 2023

By Ian Evans

Rodrigo Oyanedel diving in the Philippines

Studying the effects of illegal fishing, Rodrigo Oyanedel relies on open access and peer review to bring quality research to fishing communities in Chile

Rodrigo Oyanedelopens in new tab/window’s research on ocean conservation pulls him into some challenging situations. With a focus on the way people interact with the ocean’s resources, Rodrigo has a particular interest in the effects of illegal fishing across the worldopens in new tab/window, from Chile to Bangladesh. He builds trust with fishers in these communities, working alongside them in their boats and gaining a deep understanding of their motivations, challenges and life experiences.

As a researcher at Pontifical Catholic University of Chileopens in new tab/window, he and his team analyze the levels of the wildlife trade, accounting for the complexity of these markets and the different dynamics driving the trade of illegal products, and from there looking at ways to incentivize legal trading.

However, as his work takes him further up the supply chain of illegal fishing, he has found that the so-called “middlemen” have little interest in enabling research, and their strategies revolve around corruption and intimidation:

It’s a bit like a mafia — they put money into bribery and enforcement. It gets quite complicated. These middlemen prevent the fishers from taking part in legal economic activity because these middlemen will come down hard on you, and it can be quite dangerous.

Rodrigo Oyanedel diving in Chile

Rodrigo Oyanedel diving in Chile

Rodrigo on a boat during a research expedition in Chile. Rodrigo is a keen sailor who loves to fish and is used to being out in the ocean for days.

Rodrigo is a keen sailor who loves to fish and is used to being out in the ocean for days, which helps him build rapport with fishers.

Building trust with the fisher communities take time and understanding, Rodrigo noted. The people pulled into illegal supply are at risk from both the government and the middlemen that enforce the supply chain.

“It takes time,” Rodrigo said. “It takes knowledge of the activity. So I go out there and I go fishing with them.”

Rodrigo is a keen sailor who loves to fish and is used to being out in the ocean for days, which helps him build rapport with the fishers:

I get in the boat with them, I get my hands dirty, I get all wet. They see that ‘this guy’s real, we can trust him .’ That makes a huge difference.

What’s more, the fishers see the actionable, reliable research Rodrigo publishes as a recognition of their situation — and part of a potential solution.

“There’s a bit of a desperate call from these people,” he said. "They don’t want to participate in these illegal activities. But they’re entrenched in a system where they have no way out with these middlemen that drive down their livelihoods. They want to get out of that situation.”

Rodrigo’s interest in this topic began while he was working as a consultant in Chile. He realized that the major driver of exploitation in the ocean was illegal fishing, and he became frustrated with the lack of evidence to solve the problem. To conserve biodiversity, he explained, governments and other policymakers need a strong understanding of how markets drive unsustainable wildlife use. The work of his team aims to help these people in different parts of the world better identify interventions for improving the sustainability of such markets.

Choosing open access

Because he wants to ensure that his research can be used to support policies and action in developing countries, Rodrigo often chooses to publish open access, seeing it as a way to bring his work to the right audience.

“For the context I work with, open access is really good,” he said. “I have several publications with small-scale research in developing countries, which usually have a lot less access to research. It’s cool knowing that someone at a top university might read my work, but the people who are going to putting it into practice are in places like Bangladesh or Peru, and they have the least access to research.”

Rodrigo also noted that open access provides and easy and convenient way for people outside the research community to access papers.

“I had a meeting with people in the Chilean government about my research, and when I arrived at the building they said, ‘We’ve been reading your papers.’ The first time that happens, it’s a real ‘woah!’ moment. And it’s likely because of open access — if they can open the link without any issues the first time they receive it, government officials are more likely to engage with it.”

Rodrigo Oyanedel


Rodrigo Oyanedel

Researcher at Pontifical Catholic University of Chile

How peer review drives confidence in research

When Rodrigo is choosing a journal for his research, he focuses on journals where he’s likely to have a productive experience with reviewers, looking for outlets that have handled similar research:

If you don’t have editors that can handle your papers and don’t have experience with reviewers in those areas, you get into these never-ending battles. Where you have journals that publish the same kind of paper, the editorial process is likely to be smoother.

Rodrigo sees the peer review process as fundamental to the scientific process — “Science needs it. Otherwise, it’s just people writing whatever they feel like,” he says — to the point where he avoids preprint outlets despite the additional speed they provide.

“I used preprints once, but I don’t like them because it feels to me as though they bypass the process,” he said. “Once a preprint is out there, it can take on a life of its own, and if a paper gets published under another title, people don’t always see that it’s been changed. So my preference is to stick to the normal review route.” Rodrigo noted that the peer review process can be painful but usually results in better research:

The most common experience for me is you open the email up and you think, ‘These comments are terrible! This is an assault!’ Then a few days go by and you come back to it and you think, ‘OK, this is really useful,’ and it improves the paper.

Like I say, it’s key and science needs it.


Portrait photo of Ian Evans


Ian Evans

Senior Director, Editorial, Content & Brand


Read more about Ian Evans