By Florencia Ortúzar
Chile is the second largest producer of salmon in the world. For more than 20 years, the industry has put profit above environmental protection.
In the absence of government regulation, large-scale salmon farms release contaminating chemicals and create oceanic dead zones. They hurt other species and harm the people and communities that depend on the ocean for sustenance.
The situation is bad, but it could get worse as the industry looks to expand into new areas of pristine waters.
Salmon farming in Chile will never be sustainable because it requires much more protein to operate than it generates. Salmon are carnivorous. To produce one kilo of salmon you need about five kilos of wild fish for feed.
Years of bad business practices and lack of government regulation have resulted in serious environmental damage, which has, in turn, brought grave social consequences to those who depend on seafood for their livelihoods. On the Big Island of Chiloé, for example, seaweed and shellfish gatherers, artisanal fishermen and people who work in plants that process wild-caught fish are experiencing massive unemployment. This social crisis is a direct result of the environmental catastrophe caused in large part by the salmon industry, which has extensive operations in the area.
In Chile, developers must present declarations or environmental impact studies that examine their project’s potential to harm nature. Despite the great risk to ecosystems, salmon farms are supported by mere affidavits, and not by studies that would allow for the identification and proper handling of potential negative impacts.
The result is thousands of salmon hatcheries. Each one consists of floating cages that, without sufficient spacing or adequate sanitation, house thousands of salmon crammed into small spaces (half the space allowed in Europe). Although it seems difficult to believe, and despite the law saying otherwise, in Chile no studies have been done on the ability of the ocean, lakes, and rivers to accommodate the number of salmon that are grown.
These captive salmon are fed pellets that contain a mix of wild fishmeal, pesticides, dyes, fungicides, and chemicals used to speed growth. A majority of these pellets are not consumed and simply fall to the seabed. Additionally, each salmon is injected with an exorbitant quantity of antibiotics (up to 5,000 times more than used in Norway). Finally, the waste generated by the fish, which contains chemicals, also accumulates on the ocean floor.
More than 20 years of these practices have caused dead zones in the ocean where life is no longer possible.
Another serious problem with the industry is that salmon often escape from their cages. According to a report by the NGO Terram, escaped salmon in Chile represent 1.5 percent of the total production, equivalent to more than 9,000 tons per year. Some studies report that this percentage could reach as high as five percent. Although by law farms must have recapture plans, they rarely succeed.
Salmon are an aggressive fish. When free, they compete with native fish for food and shelter, and transmit disease.
In May, Chile’s coasts were devastated by an unprecedented red tide, believed to be the country’s worst recent environmental crisis. The natural phenomenon, characterized by an excessive increase in microalgae, resulted in the beaching of whales, squid, sardines and even birds. Captive salmon were also affected and the industry suffered huge losses: thousands of tons of salmon carcasses rotted in floating cages.
The death rate was such that the national maritime authority authorized the release of 9,000 tons of dead salmon into the sea.
According to the salmon industry and the government, the red tide was caused by El Niño, which was aggravated by global warming.
However, some scientists have said that the salmon industry is largely to blame for submitting the ocean to their bad practices for so many years.
Not only has the salmon industry not learned from its mistakes, but it is also looking to expand into new, uncontaminated waters. It’s happening in the Patagonia regions of Magallanes and Aysen, where approximately 3,100 applications for salmon farms are awaiting approval. Farms were even proposed for places declared as priority conservation sites.
Together with our allies, AIDA is working to ensure salmon farming and other industries comply with environmental standards.
But there’s something you can do too, as citizens and consumers. Vote with your pocketbook. By purchasing only sustainable seafood products, you can help prevent the creation of more dead zones in our oceans.