The ecological and social footprint of the Chilean farming industry
Weeks after leaving office, President Sebastián Piñera urged to process a bill that opens the possibility for salmon farming centres to continue operating in marine protected areas.
Southern Chile has unique ecosystems with high levels of endemism and some vulnerable or endangered species, such as the Chilean dolphin.
Photo: Cristobal Olivares / Greenpeace
“The Chilean dolphin has a rather shy personality, probably because it is one of the smallest cetaceans in the world, so you probably may not see them performing any tricks or coming closer to us”, said our guide during a whale watching tour.
To our surprise, after a few minutes, we spotted a group of Chilean dolphins coming close to the boat while performing tricks to call our attention, leaving not just us, but our guide stunned, as he had not seen such friendly behaviour before.
We could observe salmon farm fishing nets all around the bay. However, these nets do not just look invasive to the eyes - as we discovered they are one of the main threats to the dolphin population.
Photo: Cayetano Espinosa
It is estimated that the 'ecological footprint' that a salmon farming company generates can reach up to 10,000 times the environment of the activity itself. Unfortunately, Chile – the world’s second-largest producer of farmed salmon – has staged several environmental and health scandals that have harmed not only marine resources, but also the quality life of its citizens.
As a Chilean citizen that grew up in one of the main hotspots of salmon production, the Los Lagos region, I have personally witnessed the harms of the industry.
Salmon makes up 77% of the Los Lagos region’s export income. However, recent study based on Sustainability indicators by Seafood Watch warns that the Atlantic salmon, the species primarily produced in Chile, remains in the category of ‘avoid’.
Photo: Andrés Pérez
The report headed by Monterey Bay Aquarium, details the growing concern due to the massive escapes of salmon from the Chilean salmon industry, especially coho salmon, which seems to be settling into nature and increasing its range of distribution.
Studies have also identified salmoniculture and gillnets as worrying threats to the Chilean dolphin population. This dolphin is the only endemic cetacean in Chile that, unlike others, are residents of specific areas, meaning that they remain almost all their life in the same bay, which makes them even more vulnerable.
Photo: anonymous source.
NGOs like Greenpeace and Oceana have demanded more transparency when reporting the number of species dying in the nets. Carla Christie, Marine Biologist at the Universidad Austral de Chile and Master of Science Communication, University of Otago, New Zealand, has studied the Chilean dolphin for over 18 years. She said, “the point is that it’s obviously negative. A salmon company will not be reporting that three dolphins have died in a year unless someone witnesses it, leaving them with no other option than to register it”.
A report published by Cayetano Espinosa, Entanglements and Mortality of Endemic Chilean Dolphins (Cephalorhynchus Eutropia) in Salmon Farms in Southern Chile, shows entanglement records of six Chilean dolphins and two humpback whales over ten years.
This might not seem an apparent cause for concern, but he stresses that these records represent a minimum number because of the lack of transparency by salmon farm companies. "We started this study because we received anonymous notifications of entanglement events in salmon farms. We understand that bycatch will occur, but it is important to know that it is happening in order to mitigate the issue”.
The findings constitute a crucial indicator to promote conservation measures and actions for this species. The largest registered population of the Chilean dolphin is composed of approximately just 60 individuals, the reason why it is essential to conserve them all and now.
“If you have a group of less than 100, a bycatch of 1 or 2 a year can lead to the extinction of that population. If you are extinguishing populations, you genetically disconnect them, causing environmental problems for a species", said Cayetano.
In Chile, the enormous growth of this industry has not been accompanied by a sufficient regulatory framework, causing a long history of environmental disasters.
It suffices to recall the health crisis caused by the ISA virus in 2007 that brought about a financial and a social crisis. As well as in 2016, where there was an intensification of the red tide in Chiloé following the dumping of rotting salmon to the sea, while in 2018 there was the escape of more than 7000 salmons from the company Marine Harvest in Puerto Montt.
In addition, the denial of transparency when it comes to showing the number of antibiotics and chemicals used by salmon cultivation centers can result in prejudicial for the health of citizens. A law for more transparency required by the Chilean NGO Oceana, resulted in 18 companies out of 24 refusing to share the numbers on the grounds that such information would affect their commercial rights.
A production worker in one of Puerto Montt centers said, “I started working in a salmon center, but I decided to leave after two days because of the poor working conditions. However, what I saw is that the salmon comes in very bad conditions, we have to alter it to be able to sell it”.
There are very few studies in Chile on the impact of salmon leakage on ecosystems and the population of dolphins, this demonstrates the inability of the industry to understand the range of effects on native fauna that may arise from their operations. According to Christie, the Chilean dolphin is qualified as vulnerable, but “they’re not qualified as threatened just because we don’t know how many there are”.
Photo: Cayetano Espinosa
“They invaded, saturated Chiloé first and then began to move the salmon farms to areas where there are fewer people. These are beautiful areas that must be preserved and where there is obviously less control”, said Christie.