Business & Economy

Chile’s pristine southern waters threatened by salmon-farming

By Maria M. Mur

Punta Arenas, Chile, Apr 10 (EFE).- Magallanes, Chile’s farthest southern region, for years has been a crossroads for salmon-farming, an industry that has become one of the country’s economic engines but which is in the sights of environmentalists due to its heavy impact on marine ecosystems.

Leticia Caro is concerned about the Strait of Magellan, that narrow stretch of ocean that her Kawesqar ancestors traversed in canoes.

“The sea mobilizes and provides. It’s done that for our people for thousands of years,” Caro, the top official for this indigenous people, nomads until the 20th century, told EFE.

She said that many of the fjords in which they have fished “are infested with (salmon-farming) concessions” and that the native species are “disappearing” because of the waste leakage from the farms and because salmon are exotic fish that “wipe away” everything.

“There’s a channel that’s called Poca Esperanza (Little Hope) where there’s no longer anything. We’ve caught salmon with silversides in their mouths,” he said from Punta Arenas, the capital of Magallanes.

Chile is the world’s second largest exporter, after Norway, of salmon, and salmon-farming – which was heavily developed during the 1973-1990 Augusto Pinochet dictatorship – is the country’s third-largest export industry, after copper and lithium sales.

In 2022, the industry brought in $6.606 billion, an annual rise of 27.3 percent, mainly from the United States and Japan.

Los Lagos, 900 kilometers (558 miles) south of Santiago, is the epicenter of an industry that, over the years, has been expanding toward the south, especially toward Magallanes, the region where the most permits have been issued (85) to engage in salmon-farming.

Carlos Odebret, the president of Salmonicultores de Magallanes, told EFE that the attraction of the region lies in its frigid waters, which prevent the development of diseases in the salmon and reduce their mortality.

“It’s said that we’re using more antibiotics than in other countries and that’s true, but it’s because we have different diseases,” he said, going on to stress that “Afterwards, an analysis is performed to guarantee that there are no traces (of antibiotics) in the meat.”

In Magallanes, in any case, the majority of the salmon-farming centers “are free of antibiotics,” he added.

Besides greater usage of antibiotics and the threat to native species, salmon-farming “devastates” the sea floors because that is where the food that the salmon do not ingest, along with their feces, are deposited.

Estefania Gonzalez, the coordinator for Greenpeace Campaigns, compared the farms with “aquariums that are never cleaned,” saying that “This decomposing organic material is consuming all the oxygen.”

According to the NGO, 50 percent of the salmon-farming centers in Magallanes have been found to have anaerobic conditions, meaning that there is partial or total loss of oxygen in their waters.

“Something is happening in these fjords that makes them more vulnerable,” emphasized Gonzalez, who noted that the debate “is not exclusive to Chile” and that Washington state in the US will put an end to fish raising in cages in 2025.

The industry says that the damage “is not irreversible” and that the law establishes that when anaerobic conditions occur the centers must stop producing until the sea floors are restored.

Joselyn Arriegada, a geographer with the Universidad de Chile and a member of the expedition organized by Greenpeace seeking to calibrate the impact of the industry in the area, said that many of companies are financed with Norwegian capital because the ocean conditions “are very similar” to those in the Scandinavian country.

“Chilean legislation has many legal gaps and that attracts them,” she told EFE.

Salmon-farming has experienced several crises, although 2016 was an inflection point with more than 9,000 tons of dead salmon dumped into Chiloe (Los Lagos), with the OK of the government.

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