Chile’s Salmon Farm Industry Pushing South Into Patagonia

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As Chile’s once-lucrative salmon farming industry tries to rebound from the widespread damage caused by the infectious salmon anemia (ISA) virus over the past two years, it has set its sights on new, still mostly pristine and virus-free waters further south on the Patagonian coast.
Already, there are approximately 1,600 applications for new salmon concessions off the coast of Magallanes, Chile’s southernmost region. In the Aysén region, located just north of Magallanes, another 1,500 requests for concessions are under review. Maps generated by the Puerto Varas-based Pumalín Foundation show that in three locations of Aysén, the number of salmon farms is burgeoning. 
Environmental advocates warn that opening up southern coastal waters to salmon farms simply will extend the industry’s attendant problems of water pollution, salmon escapes and disease. “We are very concerned about the expansion of this industry into Patagonia,” says Alex Muñoz, vice-president of the South America office of Oceana, a leading marine-conservation organization. “This area has other potential economic uses that can be sustainable instead of aquaculture, which is unsustainable both environmentally and economically.” 
Local opposition forms
Much of the debate is centered in Puerto Natales, a tourist town of 20,000 in the Magallanes region near Chile’s most popular national park, Torres del Paine. Local tour businesses, students and citizen groups have formed the group Patagonia Without Salmon Farms, which has called for a moratorium on expansion of the industry into Magallanes. 
In recent months, Magallanes region officials have been receiving input from local stakeholders on a zoning plan they are developing for the coastline that will delineate exactly where such economic activities as fishing, tourism, and salmon farming may occur. Government officials have been planning to announce a land-use plan soon, but have not set a date. 
Chilean government officials and salmon industry executives insist reforms of the nation’s aquaculture law strengthened regulation of the sector—for example, by stiffening fines for salmon escapes and tightening controls on the use of antibiotics. Cesar Barros, president of SalmonChile, the nation’s salmon farming association, says changes are underway as companies awakened to environmental concerns in the aftermath of the ISA crisis. Says Barros: “As an industry, we have adopted voluntarily many practices used in Canada and Norway, such as salmon neighborhoods, in which we have periods of pause in salmon production.” 
Environmental groups such as Oceana, present a far different picture. Matthias Gorny, science director for Oceana in Chile, says contamination solely from the seven salmon farm concessions proposed for the Seno Skyring area, located just outside the city of Punta Arenas, would generate waste equivalent to that of a city of 600,000 people. Says Gorny: “Given the local ecological conditions, it’s not true that the waste will disperse out to sea with currents; to the contrary. This is a highly rich area of biodiversity that is vulnerable.” 
Green groups say species threatened by salmon farming expansion into Magallanes include cold water corals, macroalgae, numerous species of whales and dolphins, sea lions, and the biggest and most diverse colony of penguins found in Chile. The food sources for several species would decline greatly if the waters are contaminated by salmon farms, they say. 
New concession requests
Working with Oceana to assess the potential impact on local tourism and marine life is Héctor Kol, a biologist and member of the Aysén Small Fishermen’s Association. In a study he recently completed on new salmon-concession requests in La Última Esperanza Province, Kol found that two regionally owned salmon companies, Friosur and Caleta Bay, have asked for 28 concessions in the Mountains Channel, perhaps the region’s most valuable waterway from the standpoint of tourism. 
Of the 28 concessions being claimed, Kol says 24 would violate existing environmental standards on acceptable distance between salmon farming sites. He points out that the Mountains Channel was part of a December 2008 agreement signed between SalmonChile and the Tourism Chamber of Puerto Natales, in which the salmon industry agreed not to pursue siting of salmon farms on the waterway. 
“A big part of the damage caused by the salmon industry in Chile’s Lakes Region was the consequence of a lack of political will on the part of authorities in environmental management of this activity,” Kol says. “That’s not likely to change in Magallanes.” 
Juan Jose Garrido, who offers treks and sailing excursions in and around the Mountains Channel, agrees, citing salmon farms in Última Esperanza Bay near Puerto Natales. “Our excursions pass through there,” he says. “They have not just contaminated the water, but the damage to the scenery is also extensive. With all the chemicals they use, the waste from the feed and feces…this will ruin one of Chile’s best tourism areas.” 
Patagon Journal in the coming weeks will present "Magallanes Under Threat: the Salmon Farming Industry in Magallanes." A special series of articles about the expansion of the salmon farming industry into the Magallanes region of Patagonia, the reports will show the magnitude of the expansion underway in the region and, in particular, the possible effects this activity could have on the local tourism economy and the environment. 
Photo by Jimmy Langman