The Beacon

Blog Tags: Patagonia

Patagonia’s Penguins at Risk from Proposed Coal Mine

magellanic penguin

Magellanic penguins in Chile. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Last month Chile’s government approved a controversial coal mine project in southern Patagonia’s Riesco Island, despite opposition from local residents and environmental groups, including Oceana.

Oceana presented a report to Chile’s environmental ministry outlining the threats facing mammals and birds in the region, including the area’s most emblematic seabird, the Magellanic penguin. The threats from the mine include heavy metal pollution (such as mercury), oil spills, and boat collisions with marine mammals.

Riesco Island is part of Chile’s Alacalufes National Reserve, which is home to an important colony of Magellanic penguins – around 10,000 of the seabirds live around the island. The island and its surroundings are also home to at least 27 species of bird and 7 marine mammal species, including humpback whales. One of the region’s waterways, Otway sound, is one of the only places on the Chilean coast where the Chilean dolphin, bottlenose dolphin and southern dolphin can all be found.

The heavy metals released by coal mining would affect seabirds’ reproduction, especially the penguins. Oil spills can contaminate the eggs, cause death by inhalation and ingestion, and loss of feather waterproofing, which can lead to hypothermia.

Plus, Chile does not have a contingency plan to treat animals affected by oil spills. According to our report, of 76 penguins treated for oil contamination in 2006 in Patagonia’s Madalena Island, 22 died. And in 2004, an oil spill in Chile’s Tierra del Fuego led to the loss of 88% of the adults in a colony of rock cormorants.


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Chilean Salmon: What’s Next?

A bird in the waters of Chilean Patagonia. © Oceana/Emily Fisher

I’m back stateside after a month working in our Santiago office and visiting Chilean Patagonia, and I wanted to give a quick wrap-up and tell you a little more about Oceana’s role in the region and what we can expect in the coming months.

Last week I wrote about my encounters with some of the most beautiful wilderness I’ve ever seen, as well as two salmon farms, Caleta Delano and Bahia Perales, the latter of which was recently found to have been infected with Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA), the disease that paralyzed the industry in 2007.

But let me back up -- what’s so bad about farming salmon? Here’s a bit of background on the environmental problems associated with salmon aquaculture in Chile:

Pollution: Fish waste and excess feed can cause rapid algae growth that pollutes the water surrounding aquaculture pens, and in some cases, creates an oxygen-deprived dead zone. A salmon farm of 200,000 fish releases roughly the amount of fecal matter equivalent to the untreated sewage of a city with 65,000 people. The waste collects under net pens, polluting the seafloor and surrounding waters.

Overcrowding: The high densities of fish in net pens used by fish farms lead to disease outbreaks and a higher prevalence of diseases, such as ISA.

Antibiotics: As a result of the disease outbreaks, the fish are treated with antibiotics, reducing the effectiveness of the same drugs for human diseases.


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Last Hope For Chilean Wildlife?

Cormorants

Cormorants in Chilean Patagonia. Oceana/Emily Fisher

Editor Note: This is the last update from Oceana online editor Emily Fisher in Patagonia. She returns to Santiago today. For more photos, visit our Flickr page.

On my last day in Patagonia, I joined a group of about 25 travelers, including Italians, Argentinians, Spaniards, Mexicans and one Brit, on a boat cruise into one of Chile's most picturesque waterways.

The boat took us into the Seno Ultima Esperanza (“Last Hope Sound”), which was so-named because its European discoverers were nearly dead when they finally found it, searching for the western entrance to the Magellan Strait.

But now Ultima Esperanza, which happens to also be the name of this region of Patagonia, has taken on a new significance, as the salmon farming industry is also looking to these clean waters to salvage their business. The industry has submitted requests for hundreds of new salmon farms in the waters of Ultima Esperanza, and as I saw today, these are waters that are rich with wildlife and peeping tourists.


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Going Straight to the Salmon Source

Caleta Delano farm

Salmon farm Caleta Délano. Photo: Oceana/Emily Fisher

Editor's Note: Oceana online editor Emily Fisher is reporting from Chilean Patagonia this week, a beautiful place under threat from polluting salmon aquaculture. She'll be sending updates throughout the week. See more photos on our Flickr page.

I’ve known about the negative impacts of salmon farming in Chile for years, but this morning I finally got a glimpse of the source.

A Puerto Natales local named Fernando, with extensive knowledge of the area’s waters, was kind enough to take me out in his boat. The morning was overcast and chilly, but according to Fernando, it was a great day to go out on the water due to the calm winds, which he said was the biggest problem for excursion operators like him this time of year.

Donning ridiculous orange jumpsuits to protect us from the elements, we hopped in his boat. Within three minutes – no exaggeration – he quieted the motor, pointing to a pod of southern dolphins.  There were at least eight dolphins zooming around our boat, taunting me to capture them with my inadequate camera. When they finally got sick of us, we motored over, a few hundred meters away, to see a non-functioning salmon farm. Its orange buoys bobbed serenely as we sped off, spotting even more dolphins.


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Chilean Salmon Aquaculture 2.0: Déjà Vu?

Chilean Patagonia

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.


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