Oceana Magazine Spring 2011: Beneath Still Waters

Hundreds of potential new salmon farms could spoil the waters and growing tourism industry of southern Chilean Patagonia.

By Emily Fisher

On a chilly and overcast morning in southern Chilean Patagonia last November, I found myself in an inflatable Zodiac, hoping to catch a glimpse of a salmon farm. But my local guide, Fernando, was more accustomed to spotting wildlife. He quieted the boat’s motor, smiled and pointed to a pod of southern dolphins.

Eventually we found our way to Caleta Délano, a salmon farm whose drab structures and buoys contrasted with the backdrop of magnificent snow-covered peaks. From where we sat, the farm gave off no harsh odor, no noise pollution, and the salmon themselves were hidden from view underwater. The whole operation was remarkably tranquil, in fact.

But beneath its benign appearance lay a whole slew of environmental impacts: nutrient and chemical pollution, salmon escapes and overuse of antibiotics, to name a few. Three years after the Chilean salmon farming industry was devastated by a bout with infectious salmon anemia (ISA), the industry is poised to start over, this time in the unspoiled  waters of southern Patagonia. More than 1,500 permits have been requested for new salmon farms in Chilean Patagonia’s southern region of Magallanes in the coming year, which has tourism officials, fishermen and conservationists on edge.

The region hosts some of Patagonia’s most emblematic natural features, including Torres del Paine National Park, one of Chile’s biggest tourist draws. 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 is home to blue whales, Magellanic penguins and many species of endemic corals, among other wildlife. This spring will be a crucial time in the battle to prevent a farmed salmon invasion in Patagonia.

In April, the waterfront zoning process for Magallanes is scheduled for completion. Representatives from the tourism, artisanal fishing and conservation sectors, including Oceana, are working to exclude specific areas from salmon farming that are the most ecologically sensitive and important for tourism and fishing. Should even a fraction of the requested farms move in, the effects on Patagonia’s marine environment could be deadly.

According to 2009 data from the Yendegaya Foundation, a salmon farm with  approximately 3.5 million fish releases the same amount of waste as the sewage from a city of about 169,000 people. The untreated fish waste settles in the sea bed, creating dead zones devoid of life.

Also, the fish don’t stay put. At least 10 million farmed salmon escape from their pens in Chile each year. The non-native predator competes with wild fish for food, jeopardizing native populations and spreading disease. And to treat disease, the salmon are given  antibiotics, some of which aren’t approved for use in livestock in the U.S. – despite the fact that much of the fish is headed there.

And since salmon are carnivores, farming them is unsustainable by definition. In Chile, it takes more than eight pounds of fish meal to produce one pound of salmon, resulting, ironically, in a net loss of protein.

The fish meal is made from wild stocks of anchoveta, sardines and mackerel off the coast of Chile and Peru. As a result, some of these stocks are now overexploited, which reverberates throughout the entire ocean food chain and has resulted in less fish and jobs for Chile’s artisanal fishing industry.

Don Teobaldo Ruiz is the president of the Chamber of Tourism in Puerto Natales, Chile, the gateway to Torres del Paine National Park and many of Patagonia’s natural wonders. He said he is extremely concerned about the effects of salmon aquaculture on his region’s environmental and economic health.

“We in the tourism industry simply ask that they don’t affect the places that are important for tourism development, which in reality, is practically all of Magallanes,” he said.

On my last day in Patagonia, I joined a group of tourists on a boat cruise into one of Chile’s most picturesque waterways. We glided into the dramatically-named Seno Ultima Esperanza (“Last Hope Sound”), so-called because its European discoverers were nearly dead when they finally found it, searching for the western entrance to the Strait of Magellan.

We stopped at a cormorant colony, which from distance was a massive rock face covered in tiny black specks. Upon closer inspection, the specks were hundreds of the black and white sea birds, breeding and nesting for the summer. At the next stop we spotted a  colony of curious sea lions, and soaring above them, several condors.

But we also passed by a site that wasn’t printed on our itinerary: the salmon farm Bahia Perales. The ISA virus had been detected in this farm just a few weeks earlier, and the company, Salmon Magallanes, was ordered to either harvest or dispose of the fish. I asked one of the boat’s crewmembers about the fish farm and it turned out that he had worked a brief stint for that very operation. He said it would be his first and last time working in salmon aquaculture.

It’s not a stable source of employment, he said, and he didn’t like the way the workers were treated. “With ISA, you don’t know if you’re going to be without work,” he said.

During the ISA outbreak in 2007, thousands of workers were laidoff in Chile’s Los Lagos region. As a result, he prefers to work in tourism, though he said he’s now concerned about its future. “I don’t want to take a boat full of tourists, and instead of seeing a beautiful waterfall, or a colony of sea lions, they’ll see a salmon farm. To me that’s not tourism, that’s not nature.”

Oceana’s Campaign

Oceana has been working to improve the sanitary and environmental standards of the salmon aquaculture industry in Chile for years, and has made significant progress, helping to pass new regulations to prevent salmon escapes and limit the use of antibiotics.

Together with representatives from the tourism and artisanal fishing industries, Oceana has been working to exclude specific areas of the southern Patagonian region of Magallanes from salmon farming that are the most ecologically sensitive and important for tourism and fishing. As of this magazine’s printing, three important tourist routes in the region were protected under new zoning regulations, and Oceana’s campaign will now work to enforce the new rules.

Oceana has also been working to establish a marine protected area around a pristine area of Patagonia called Tortel, and we have completed several expeditions to the area, capturing underwater photos and video of the area’s rich biodiversity.