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Can Banning Fish Farms in Chile Replicate Argentina’s Abundant Marine Life?

A rugged trail, adorned with dense tree roots, winds from a dusty road to a petite green cabin perched above the turbulent waters of the Beagle Channel, a strait separating Chile and Argentina. This humble abode belongs to Diane Mendez and her family, serving as the home of Alama Yagan, one of the nine eateries in the fishing hamlet of Puerto Almanza.

Situated in the Argentinean region of Tierra del Fuego, the village has evolved into a paradise for food enthusiasts and marks the final destination on the king crab circuit, a path originating in the provincial capital Ushuaia, located 45 miles to the east. However, the course of events could have taken a different turn.

In 2021, the provincial authorities made a pivotal decision to prohibit intensive salmon aquaculture in Argentinean waters, following successful advocacy efforts that highlighted the potential environmental devastation, the jeopardy to local fishing fleets, and the risks posed to the flourishing nature tourism sector, employing 16,500 individuals.

“The ban on industrial salmon farming has had a positive impact on the entire marine ecosystem,” Mendez affirms. “From the crabs to the seaweed, every element relies on a thriving Beagle Channel.”

For culinary experts like Mendez, the ocean serves as her pantry. It furnishes the renowned centolla, or king crab, abundant mussels gathered daily by her husband through freediving, and expansive kelp forests utilized in her culinary creations. This bounty is shared with colonies of sea lions, rock shags, and occasional southern right whales passing by.

The success story in Tierra del Fuego led to the establishment of the , a coalition comprising environmental groups and scientists advocating for other regions to emulate Argentina’s stance. The Falkland Islands have also enforced bans on such farms, while the Canadian province of British Columbia is slated to follow suit by 2025. The US state of .

Conversely, in neighboring Chile, equivalent protective measures are lacking. “The landscape has drastically transformed with the advent of this industry,” remarks Daniel Casado, a filmmaker and activist for , a collective of biologists, engineers, artists, and fishermen monitoring the marine ecosystem surrounding the salmon farms.

The initial open-net salmon farms arrived in Chilean waters during the 1980s, capitalizing on the sheltered coastline and frigid currents that offered ideal conditions. Initially inconspicuous, these farms have now proliferated to an estimated 1,400 installations scattered across the islands and inlets of the Chiloé archipelago.

“They essentially devastated the Chiloé region,” laments Casado. Presently, the industry is expanding southwards, jeopardizing some of Chile’s last pristine coastal stretches, including Magallanes, a region described as the final frontier before Antarctica, and the abode of the Kawésqar national park.

The national park has emerged as the primary battleground against salmon farming due to a legal anomaly that safeguards only its land, not its waters. Ironically, the Kawésqar, an Indigenous community residing in the area, are nomadic “canoe people” who dwell on water rather than land.

Due to this legal quirk, the fjords and channels are evolving into a new nucleus for the salmon industry, raising concerns that the continued expansion of the farms will devastate local ecosystems and fishing communities.

Casado notes the near extinction of artisanal fishing in Chiloé, attributing this decline to local regulations preventing access to traditional fishing grounds in proximity to the farms. Moreover, the salmon, being non-native to Chilean waters, outcompete indigenous species as millions escape annually. This has led to a depletion of fish stocks, according to Casado.

By surpassing stocking limits and clustering nets too closely, the farms are also impacting water quality. Casado asserts that “dead zones” are emerging directly beneath the pens—areas of the seabed devoid of life due to the accumulation of fish waste and other debris. “In numerous regions, oxygen levels are critically low—sustaining no life,” he adds.

The litany of accusations continues, with activists attributing extensive algal blooms, or “red tides,” to the farms. The algae thrives in the artificially enriched waters surrounding the pens, often proving toxic to fish, including salmon, and other marine species.

“The industry contends that this is a natural occurrence unrelated to their operations,” Casado remarks. “However, the excessive nutrient input into the water causes significant environmental changes.”

Additionally, the Chilean government has begun brokering agreements with illegally established fish farms within national parks by relocating them to new sites, as per Casado.

“The government must address this issue earnestly; otherwise, businesses will persist in despoiling areas, relocating, and repeating the cycle until no refuge remains,” warns Casado.

The industry refutes the environmental allegations leveled against it. Catarina Martins, the chief sustainability and technology officer at the Norwegian conglomerate Mowi, a major player in the salmon farming sector with a substantial presence in Chile, contends that organizations like the GSFR present an outdated portrayal of a well-regulated industry operating within stringent frameworks. “We are not the root cause of these dead zones,” she asserts.

Martins argues that it is simpler to blame the industry for occurrences such as algal blooms rather than exploring more intricate factors, like the impact of climate change on ocean dynamics and water temperatures.

The industry is exploring methods to minimize its ecological footprint, Martins explains. For instance, implementing fallow periods ranging from four to six weeks, during which no fish are farmed, helps prevent any “cumulative impact” on the seabed, allowing the environment to recuperate. Installation of skirts around the top of the pens deters sea lice infestations, a parasite that thrives in fish farms and can decimate salmon populations. This measure has also reduced the necessity for medicated feeds containing antibiotics, which can leach into the environment.

To encourage salmon to feed at varying depths, underwater lights are being utilized to move them around the pens, hindering the easy spread of diseases. Nonetheless, critics argue that insufficient research has been conducted on the repercussions of these lights on other fish and marine mammals.

Outside Alama Yagan, an Argentinean flag flutters in the brisk breeze as Mendez takes a respite after preparing lunch for a group of visitors from Ushuaia.

Having previously collaborated with Chilean fishermen, Mendez empathizes with those who have lost their livelihoods. Nevertheless, she is grateful that Argentina drew valuable insights from their experiences, preventing the establishment of salmon farms in the Beagle Channel.

“Permitting salmon farming here would have betrayed both the fishing community and the ecosystem at large,” she reflects.