There are no roads in Caleta Tortel. The 500-some residents in this coastal village in Chile’s south get around with boats or through an elaborate series of wooden walkways. The town seems frozen in a previous time. And thanks to decisions by Caleta Tortel’s townspeople, the region's delicate coastal ecosystem is equally preserved: It’s one of the few places in Chilean Patagonia free from salmon farms.
It’s no accident that this remote, glacier-fed region is undisturbed by industrial aquaculture. Locals have fought off the salmon industry for years. “We couldn’t allow people to come in and pollute our homeland,” said Bernardo López, the mayor of Tortel. “We never want salmon farming here.”
Tortel’s residents have good reason to fear salmon aquaculture. Between 2009 and 2015, Chilean salmon production doubled from 400,000 to 800,000 metric tons. The country is now the world’s second largest producer and exporter of these fish, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
But the explosive growth of the salmon industry has come at a huge cost to Chile’s once-pristine coastline. Salmon farms are dirty. Feces, uneaten feed pellets, anti-lice chemicals and drugs — including antibiotics that also medically important for humans — filter from the pens into the surrounding water. This pollutes local ecosystems, and may create conditions for the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Despite these problems, there are now more than 705 salmon farming centers active in Patagonia, according to government fisheries agencies. In 2015, the salmon industry proposed constructing five experimental salmon breeding stations off Caleta Tortel.
This would have devastated the area’s untouched ecosystem. Tortel’s coastline is carpeted in thick forests and cut through with fjords and vast glaciers. Below the waves, the clear, pristine water hosts a wealth of marine animals from cold-water corals to humpback whales.
Beyond its environmental importance, clean water is also critically important to the residents of Caleta Tortel. “The ocean is one of the most important resources that Tortel has,” said Rodrigo Maldonado, an official with the Tortel Municipal Government. “It’s part of the town’s history, it’s a source of jobs and the means of transport. It’s also part of the town’s spirit, family knowledge and cultural heritage."
With the help of Oceana and other environmental groups, the community launched a campaign in 2015 to spread awareness about the risks of salmon aquaculture. In August of that year, the national fisheries agency withdrew the proposed salmon farm concessions. In 2016, the community and its allies successfully opposed another attempt to set up salmon farms in Tortel.
Now, a push to declare Tortel and its environs a protected area is in its final stages. As a part of this, an alliance between Oceana and the National Forestry Corporation will manage and study a new system of protected areas in the region covering 11,000 square kilometers (4,200 square miles).
“Tortel is the only area in this region that is free from salmon farms,” said Liesbeth van der Meer, the head of Oceana’s team in Chile. “It is rich in biodiversity; it is a natural lab. This is why we need protect Tortel’s marine area and close its doors to the salmon industry for good.”