Are Chile’s industrial salmon farms changing the seas?
Some indigenous Chileans believe the farms are killing off marine life and also threatening their communities’ future.
Protests rocking the streets of Santiago are not just focused on what many Chileans consider unbearable political, social and economic inequalities. Many of the demonstrators are also angered by how business interests appear to be trumping environmental concerns.
Leticia Caro lives more than a thousand kilometres away from Santiago, and she is part of a growing group of Chileans who are worried about how salmon industry expansion is impacting the environment. Her family has been fishing in the waters off southern Chile for as long as there have been humans there. She is part of an indigenous community living in the Magallanes region in the extreme south of the South American continent. The Kawesqar have archaeological records that date back 15,000 years.
Caro believes her people’s way of life is being threatened by the efforts of multinational, industrial-scale fishing corporations to boost fish stocks and expand an already powerful fishing industry. Their efforts include the use of fish farms and the introduction of a foreign species of salmon into the fragile ecosystem in Patagonia.
Caro’s family’s nine-metre boat, the Calipso, is one of the few tools these traditional fishermen use. For millennia, the Kawesqar lifestyle has been dependent on the sea. To fish, they use small low-tech boats and rely mostly on knowledge passed down from their ancestors.
“We sail with no technology. We follow wind direction and navigate with mountains and the stars,” Caro told Al Jazeera. Recently, however, the Patagonian waters that provide Caro’s livelihood have not been yielding as many fish as they used to.
“We could fish some 400 kilos of sea bass and silversides [in the past],” Caro said. “In our ancestral fishing areas, we can [only] now get up to 60 kilos. We need to go further away, but we can’t catch what we used to anyway.”
One day, in the winter of 2015, Caro’s father went out to sea and came back with only four fish. That was the day she started fighting against fish farming in her region.
For the 500 or so Kawesqar, the decline of fishing is threatening their livelihoods and driving a wedge through this indigenous community. Caro is fighting for her traditional lifestyle, and yet other members of her group, like so many people in Chile, are seizing economic opportunities created by the country’s booming salmon industry because other jobs are so hard to come by.
“Many went to work in salmon farming, and this has created a divide between us,” Caro said. “We understand their need [to earn a living], but had we been all together, we would have been strong enough against the business.”
Industrial fish farms
Chile exports roughly $5bn worth of salmon every year, according to Salmon Chile, an industry group. At that level, the South American country could be considered the world’s second-largest exporter of what is often branded “Atlantic salmon”. The irony, of course, is that Chile’s coast is on the Pacific Ocean.
“Businessmen, scientists, and fishermen started an industry from scratch in a relatively short three decades. The species [Atlantic salmon] didn’t exist in Chile,” said Rodrigo Azocar Guzman, a fisheries consultant. “Southern Chile lives off salmon.”
Chile’s salmon industry grew up quickly. In just a few decades, it went from being a small-scale producer to being a global player. Data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) shows Chile exported 850,000 tonnes of salmon to 100 countries in 2018.
Chile exports more fish than Norway, a country revered around the globe for its salmon. While the industry was nearly nonexistent some 30 years ago, more than 21,000 Chileans owe their livelihoods to the pink fish today, according to the National Statistics Institute of Chile.
Salmon is one of the country’s top three exports along with copper and fruits. But that growth has had unintended consequences.
“Atlantic salmon isn’t a native Chilean species; therefore, it isn’t the same to farm it in Norway as in Chile,” said Estefania Gonzalez, oceans campaigns coordinator at Greenpeace Chile.
Atlantic salmon in Chile is bred in fish farms, where vast amounts of fish are crammed into football-field-sized enclosures, and chemicals are used to keep fish yields high.
“To produce [Atlantic salmon] in Chile, the same company may use up to 700 times more antibiotics than in Norway,” Gonzalez told Al Jazeera.
didn’t exist in Chile.”]
And while the fish may be penned in ocean-based farms, the water is not contained. It flows in and out of the enclosures, dispersing chemicals and other salmon byproducts, which is having surprising consequences. The increase in the levels of antibiotics in seawater is leading to antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria that can infect humans, according to research by Universidad Austral de Chile. Meanwhile, an unnaturally high concentration of Atlantic salmon droppings is negatively impacting the surrounding area. A combination of antibiotics and salmon droppings is lethal to marine life in areas near fish farms, according to Greenpeace.
“A slow damage mitigation process has started because the largest control comes from the market,” Azocar Guzman said. “If Greenpeace continues with their high antibiotic content reports, salmon producers won’t be able to sell anywhere.”
Salmon Chile claims that the carbon footprint of salmon is 10 times smaller than that of cattle and that 74 percent of its production abides by environmental and antibiotic reduction standards. Salmon Chile did not respond to Al Jazeera’s repeated requests for comment
Small environmental victories
A growing taste for salmon around the world has made the industry very competitive. “Salmon farming is a financial business,” Azocar Guzman told Al Jazeera. He says that because of that, environmental or social concerns take a back seat, and “they just think in terms of profitability”.
As companies chase profits and seek to consolidate their positions, mergers and acquisitions are changing the landscape of global salmon production, consolidating power within the hands of a shrinking number of corporations. According to the FAO, in 2018 alone, the value of acquisitions in the industry topped $1.5bn.
The Chilean government is trying to curb the industry’s environmental impact, but businesses are fighting back. The country’s regulatory framework includes caps and incentives for reducing antibiotic use, measures that have angered some aquaculture companies. Some of these firms are now suing the government, alleging the new regulations unfairly penalise them.
Meanwhile, the territory inhabited by the Kawesqar has seen small victories against further expansion of industrial aquaculture. New licences have been frozen, a step Caro believes can help preserve her people’s ancient way of life, though she acknowledges times are changing.
“We live in the present,” Caro says. “Today, we’re fighting to stop salmon farming, to stop it from destroying our territories. I will continue along this path until we get them out.”