On 23 May 2018 it was confirmed by the Chilean Supreme Court that the malpractice of six salmon farming companies in the world’s second largest salmon producing nation led to the mortality of 9,000 tonnes of salmon. It was already known in March 2016 that noxious algae blooms – known as marea roja (red-tide) – were on the verge of creating dangerously de-oxygenated ocean conditions in the southern Los Lagos region. Their proliferation is created by warmer seas and linked to climate change. Effects can be offset by oxygenating bubblers and decreasing fish density in pens. Yet despite the warning signs, the Supreme Court stated, ‘no preventive measures were taken,’ by the National Fishing Service or industry.
The salmon farmers were unable to process all the dead fish at once. The verdict refers to a possible chemical contamination of the salmon while they were stock-piled at processing plants. Yet the ‘omission of legal obligations (by the salmon industry and national regulating bodies) to control risk to human, animal or environmental health,’ meant records were not kept.
On 4 March, the Chilean Navy organisation Directemar and the National Fishing Service rushed through requests ‘deviating greatly from legal norms of environmental disasters,’ to dump the fish 75 miles out to sea, in the vicinity of Puerto Montt at the northern gateway to Patagonia.
By 9 March, a tide of crustaceans, fish, birds and seals began washing up on Chile’s shore. The fallout was catastrophic, with poisoning of species across the length of the food chain, including citizens who had eaten contaminated seafood. On the affected shores of the 168,000-strong island of Chiloé, the local fishing industry were banned from going to sea, leading to protests in the street and demands for justice. Amid the chaos, Chilean salmon farming companies Australis Seafoods and Ventisquero were granted permission to dump fish as late as March 14.
When Geographical asked Australis Seafoods if it disposed of the fish at sea it replied: ‘this material was transported to authorised dumps, whose documentation accredit their traceability.’ Now Australis Seafoods is expanding south into Patagonia.
Salmon is a not a native species to Chilean waters. The unique biosphere of the Patagonian fjords is home to the humpback, minke and blue whale. According to Greenpeace Chile, 36 per cent of the world’s marine biodiversity is found here, including the Chilean dolphin which is found nowhere else on the planet. ‘Beyond the environment, this is also a cultural heritage site with anthropological significance,’ says Estefanía González of Greenpeace Chile, referring to the continuing presence of the Kawéskar indigenous community, ‘who’ve fished the fjords in their traditional canoes for 5,000 years.’
Today, however, Australis Seafoods is planning a new salmon processing plant with 71,280 tonne annual capacity just 0.6 miles outside the small port city of Puerto Natales.
On the surface, it is hard to understand how the company got the go ahead for the project just 40 miles from the nation’s flagship tourist attraction of Torres del Paine National Park, and in a region with already the lowest employment rates in the country.
For many, the project isn’t a consistent fit with Chile’s recent landmark environmental protection measures. Partly precipitated by the US’ Tomkins Conservation gift of one million acres of private rewilded land to the Chilean State in 2017, ex-President Michelle Bachelet has just created the Route of Parks. In her penultimate month in office this February 2018, she signed over 10.3 million acres to national park status and increased marine protected areas from 4.3 per cent to 42.4 per cent as previously reported by Geographical. Yet to appreciate the full rub of the salmon industry’s practices and environmental protection measures in the long thin country, you must dive a little deeper.
Fishing interests in Chile reach from Patagonian waters to the highest levels of Santiago power. At the top, is current president, and fifth richest man in the country, Sebastián Piñera. In 2012, during his first term in office, Piñera re-addressed the controversial ‘Ley de Pesca’ (Fishing Law). Along Chile’s 4,000-mile coast, he enshrined the rights of just seven of Chile’s wealthiest families and their four respective businesses to extract around 80 per cent of annual fishing quotas for perpetuity.
Private business successfully lobbied the government in favour of the law, and small-scale fishermen came out on strike against it. Subsequently, Piñera faced questioning about the £13,500 of shares he had owned in fishing giant AntarChile (owned by the Angelinis, Chile’s richest family) at the start of his premiership. Put this in the context of a country with the greatest income inequality in South America, and it’s understandable that local fishing communities in the Los Lagos region felt outraged over the devastation wreaked by the powerful salmon industry in 2016.
Lower down on the political food chain, ex-senator Jaime Orpis and ex-deputy Marta Isasi are currently facing 21 and seven-year prison sentences respectively for applying political pressure during the formation of the new Fishing Law in in exchange for bribes from AntarChile. The ex-minister of economy, Pablo Longueira who put his name to the law, also now stands accused of receiving an £856,000 bribe in 2010 from Chilean mining company Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile.
‘Never has a national government regulated this industry in a way that reflects the environmental damage caused… or even held one to the rule of law,’ says Alex Muñoz, who specialises in environmental and anti-corruption law. ‘The salmon industry has co-opted government institutions, like the National Fishing Service.’
González, goes further, claiming outright collusion, describing the ‘constant flux between government officials and the industry,’ as creating ‘a great conflict of interest.’ As a point in case, she cites the CV of ex-sub-secretary of fishing, Felipe Sandoval, who subsequently floated to the top as director of private institution Salmon Chile.
The neighbour that nobody wants
Today, perhaps the most egregious example of the salmon industry’s leverage of political power is encapsulated in the slated Dumestre plant in Puerto Natales. The viability of the processing plant in Puerto Natales depends on the supply of locally-produced salmon. Regionally, Australis Seafoods will need to increase its number of operational farms to supply the 71,280 tonnes of fish. 53 per cent of the existing 48 salmon farms managed by a number of companies across the Magallanes region, have reported the anaerobic conditions which precipitated the disaster in Chiloé. Asked if increased production is compatible with improving ocean conditions, Australis Seafoods assured Geographical that, ‘anaerobic conditions depend on other factors, and not the number of concessions.’ But with fish density twice as high as permitted in Europe, and in the absence of studies about safe standards – according to the Inter-American Association for Environmental Defense – a positive trend of more farms and improved conditions seems improbable.
Locally, protest against the plant in Puerto Natales focuses on the stress it will cause to fresh water supply; the plant’s ejection of waste residues into the fjords; the movement of construction and delivery vehicles through urban areas as well as the strain on services as a necessary influx of 450 workers and their families arrive to service Australis Seafood’s proposed new plant.
‘The industry not only restricts catch areas, pollutes ecosystems and collapses fish stocks,’ says Loreto Vásquez Salvador, director of the Citizen Education Council of Ultima Esperanza, ‘but ultimately converts fishermen into providers or employees for the very industry that destroyed their livelihoods.’ Australis Seafoods will be occupying new farming concessions already granted in the ancestral fishing grounds of the Kawéskar.
González claims that while creating the new Kawéskar National Park, the outgoing government ring-fenced the sea for the salmon industry. In this archipelago region, she explains ‘the sea and land are one.’ The decision to exclude the waters of this archipelago region ‘has no legal basis.’ González points to the man she asserts was instrumental in drawing up this division – the then minister of economy Jorge Rodríguez Grossi, previously director of Australis Seafood.
Vásquez, from the Citizen Education Council, is no stranger to environmental campaigning, helping establish the organisation in 2015 when fresh water supply to Puerto Natales was threatened by a nearby mining project. Back then she worked alongside Karina Bastidas who directed the Environmental Evaluation Service of the Magallanes region. Today, Bastidas has re-surfaced, employed by Australis Seafood as the public-facing figurehead of the Dumestre plant in Puerto Natales. ‘It’s a very uneven fight now that the salmon service has first-hand access to the (Environmental Evaluation) system,’ says Vásquez. Australis Seafoods declined to comment.
Australis Seafoods argues that not everyone is against the project. Mayor Fernando Paredes has stated perfunctorily that if the salmon industry benefits the economy, it’s welcome.
As Chile continues to develop its environmental policy, tighter regulation and compliance measures will be essential. Australis Seafood’s website lists vaccinations, fish density and health controls as examples of sustainable practices, but with no mention of managing resources to avoid depletion. ‘Never will salmon farming be sustainable from a scientific point of view,’ explains Muñoz, because ‘fishmeal… often comes from completely over-exploited sources.’ The market is also failing to regulate malpractice, with suffocating salmon and mass mortality ironically providing ‘an oxygen tank to the industry,’ due to the knock-on effect of decreased world supply and increased prices.
Nevertheless, Australis Seafoods made the positive step of joining the Global Salmon Initiative (GSI) in July 2017. All 16 salmon farming companies in the GSI are working towards Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) certification by 2020, and Australis Seafoods has already released its first detailed sustainability report for 2017. Besides preventing disease and promoting sustainability, ASC standards also demand scrupulous waste disposal, water quality and respect for neighbours, indigenous cultures and traditional territories – all of which are at stake in Puerto Natales.
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