Greenpeace vessel gauging salmon farms’ impact on waters off southern Chile

By Maria M.Mur

Punta Arenas, Chile, Apr 5 (EFE).- Defying frigid temperatures and the strong winds of Chile’s far-south Magallanes region, Greenpeace’s newest and greenest vessel is now navigating the world’s southernmost fjords in search of salmon farms and assessing their potential impact on those pristine waters.

Measuring 22.5 meters (74 feet) in length and featuring a painted rainbow on one of its sides, the Witness is being used for environmental watchdog purposes for the first time since that Netherlands-based NGO acquired it in 2021.

With a 15-crew capacity and equipped with a lifting keel and rudder, the Witness can navigate shallow waters that are inaccessible to larger ships, such as the hundreds of fjords found along Chile’s southern coast between Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas in the Magallanes region.

That remote and stunning ecosystem, populated by humpback whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions, is the fastest-growing area for Chile’s salmon industry, which ranks second only to Norway in terms of exports of that seafood product.

“Today, Magallanes is the region where the industry’s growth is concentrated. It has the largest number of pending concessions, more than 80, which are in addition to the more than 120 that have already been approved, many in protected waters,” Estefania Gonzalez, Greenpeace’s head of campaigns for Argentina, Chile and Colombia, told Efe.

That industry, whose epicenter is located farther north in the Los Lagos region (around 900 km south of Santiago), “has already destroyed entire areas and left the ocean deprived of oxygen in other regions,” the activist said.

Now it is “looking for new isolated, remote, clean areas, without any type of intervention, so it can come in and do the same.”

Salmon farming, which took off in earnest during Chile’s 1973-1990 right-wing dictatorship, is the country’s third-biggest export industry after copper and lithium mining.

More than 750,000 tons of salmon were exported in 2022 and the value of those exports totaled $6.6 billion, up 27 percent from 2021, according to the Salmon Council trade body.

Many voices in recent years, however, have brought attention to the dark side of that lucrative industry and demanded more regulation and the removal of salmon farms from protected areas of Patagonia, which are home to 30 cetacean species and 50 percent of Chile’s sea birds.

“A lot of the companies are of Norwegian origin because the conditions are very similar to those over there and Chile’s legislation has lots of legal loopholes,” Joselyn Arriegada, a geographer at the University of Chile, told Efe.

She is part of a scientific expedition (which Efe accompanied for a few days) that is aimed at gathering information about the impact of that industry on those coastal waters.

Sunken salmon cages, massive escapes of farmed salmon – an invasive species that preys on threatened native fish -, the mass deaths of salmon due to infections and oxygen-deprived waters caused by an excess of nutrients and fecal waste are some of the impacts denounced by environmentalists.

The industry, however, defends its operations, saying it adheres to all environmental standards and has been the main economic engine of southern Chile for the past 30 years.

“Many of the farms that had been active can no longer operate because not even the salmon can survive in those conditions,” Gonzalez said on board the Witness, a sailing vessel equipped with wind turbines, solar panels and a sustainable water system.

“We try to sail as much as we can. Obviously, when we have a schedule and we have to be somewhere, we sometimes have to motor. But … we try to make the minimum impact by using the solar and wind as much as we can for the electricity,” the vessel’s captain, Daniel Mares, told Efe.

After getting a close-up look at salmon farms, the Witness crew’s next mission will be to cross the Strait of Magellan and join Greenpeace’s campaign against oil exploration and production in the waters off the coast of Argentina. EFE


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