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Guest Column, September 2005

Giuliana Furci is Aquaculture Tecbnician at the Universidad de Los Lagos, X Region, Chile. Ms Furci is also the Sustainable Salmon Co-ordiantor at Fundacion Terram, a Chilean non governmental organisation dedicated to promoting sustainable development. In her guest column she address the concerns surrounding fish farming in Chile’s southern regions.

Chile's salmon farming controversy

The expansion of the salmon industry in Chile has generated an acid controversy. The conflict relates to the territorial expansion of the industry in the tenth and eleventh regions of Chile, and the conflict with different activities, particularly private conservation areas.

Salmon farming generates a series of very significant environmental impacts and the marine habitats in Southern Chile are relatively unstudied. Particularly worrying are the coral reefs and sea bed organisms which seem to be seriously threatened by the expanding and unregulated industry.

Chile has become the world’s second salmon producer in approximately 25 years. Production trends indicate that by 2010 the country will produce around 50% of the world’s salmon. In the first six months of this year, the industry has sold US$793 million, heading the list of the countries Industrial Exports, projecting a historic US$1.5 billion expected income.

The rapid growth of the salmon farming industry I, to a large extent, owed to the privileged geography which gathers many freshwater lakes, located at approximately 90 minutes drive from the Pacific Ocean’s clear water coastline, presenting temperatures apt for salmon farming. It is precisely the water temperature and its mild fluctuations (between 8C and 15C) that allow a rapid and stable production, enhanced by the right level of oxygen renewal.

Low wage employment (12% of the total revenue), complementary seasonability, and lack of real control or enforcement of local and/or international standards, make Chile a safehaven for multinational companies. Thus, these circumstances provide the country excellent conditions for becoming a major producer. However, though it must be noted that many fish farms meet local regulations for a global industry, this is clearly not enough.

Salmon and trout are not native species in Chile; therefore the intensive culture of these species has meant a massive and fairly unstudied environmental impact.

Not only the rise in nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the water column due to the organic addition to the ecosystem, but there is also evidence of copper (due to the unlawful use of malachite green) and antibiotics, have been found in alarmingly high concentrations.

The introduction of this species and its farming have meant the death of many native species and of a large area of the sea bed due to the sedimentation of the pellets used to feed the salmon. Moreover, though the figures are debated, approximately 4 Kg of fish are needed to produce 1 Kg of salmon; demanding very high fishing rates which translate into a strong depredation of other fish resources. In fact, practically all Chilean pelagic fish are currently over-exploited.

Additionally, at least one sea lion dies of asphyxia every two months near a fish farm. Considering the number of farms in the region, it is estimated that thousands of these mammals die each year. They are mostly males. It must be considered as well the number of individual animals shot dead by the guards who have been ordered to kill sea lions seen around fish farms.

Though there are many environmental and social concerns, perhaps the main issue is related to the growing conflict between a growing industry which has a major impact on the use of rivers, lakes and coastlines, with other economic activities such as artesanal fishing and tourism.

Currently, Chilean legislation does not consider instruments for coastal management, and unlike other salmon industries around the world, the increasing expansion of the Chilean salmon industry implies considerable economic and social conflicts.

The debate on salmon-farming in Chile will continue. Not only is an environmentally responsible industry necessary, but we also need a regulatory framework which can arbitrate between conflicting economic activities.