The Beacon

Chilean Salmon Aquaculture 2.0: Déjà Vu?

The breathtaking view in Patagonia. Photo: Oceana/Emily Fisher

Editor's Note: Oceana's online editor, Emily Fisher, is currently reporting from the wilds of Chilean Patagonia, a beautiful and austere place at risk from salmon aquaculture. She'll be sending reports throughout the week as her internet connection allows!

Patagonia: the very word evokes wilderness, jagged snow-capped peaks and  turquoise glaciers. It is a mecca for adventure-seekers the world around.

But there’s a new foreigner on the way, one that speaks neither Spanish, nor English, French, or German, and is indifferent to its picturesque surroundings: Atlantic salmon.

I’ve just arrived in Chilean Patagonia, where I’m hoping to find out more about the pending reincarnation of the Chilean salmon aquaculture industry. After it was devastated by a bout of Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) in 2007, most of the country’s farms shut down in the country’s Lakes region (Los Lagos), leaving behind a wake of unemployment and pollution.

Now the industry is poised to start over, this time in the turquoise waters of Patagonia, threatening marine ecosystems and wildlife, artisanal fishing and tourism.

Currently around 1,500 salmon farms have requested permits for operation in the southern region of Magallanes, which hosts some of the Patagonia’s most stunning (and revenue-generating) natural features, including Torres del Paine National Park.

This morning I chatted over coffee with Jorge Cofre, President of the Union of Boat Crews in the southern city of Punta Arenas, and he gave me a sense of what that number means. Cofre estimates that there were around 400 salmon farms in the Lakes region when the ISA crisis hit back in 2007. With almost four times that many requesting permits in southern Patagonia, if all of them are approved, Cofre said, “The impact that they could have is horrible. It would be way worse than what happened in Los Lagos.”

There are currently only eight salmon farms operating in Patagonia, but there are already signs of trouble. Just a few weeks ago, on Nov. 5, Chile’s National Fishing Service (Sernapesca) reported that an outbreak of ISA was found in one of the currently operating salmon farms in Magallanes.

Oceana is working in the region to prevent history from repeating itself.  Through ongoing zoning workshops in Magallanes, our colleagues are working to prevent the spread of this invader into the areas that are the most ecologically sensitive and important for tourism.

Chile has one of the largest fjord systems in the world, a labyrinth of channels and islands snaking more than 900 miles toward Antarctica. The area’s rich biodiversity includes magellanic penguins, blue whales and various endemic species of coral, among others.

Tomorrow I hope to catch a boat into the fjords to glimpse exactly what’s at risk.


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