Conservation news

The salmon crisis in Chile’s Chiloé Island

  • The salmon industry says the crisis was caused by the El Niño weather phenomenon.
  • Greenpeace pointed to industrial salmon fishers, who it says dumped ​​9,000 tons of dead fish into the sea shortly before the crisis.
  • Preliminary reports from a government-sponsored research mission confirm that weather conditions were conducive to forming a “red tide,” and say salmon dumping did not cause the fish kills.
  • Losses for fishers persist. Many have turned to alternate sources of income.

One of the world’s major salmon-producing regions has been hit by an environmental crisis. In early May, an unprecedented fish kill struck the archipelago of Chiloé, located in southern Chile. Fishers blame salmon companies for causing the pollution. Meanwhile, the Chilean government stands by its initial stance: the problem originated with a “red tide,” a harmful algae bloom.

The first sign that something was wrong with the waters of southern Chile came in April in Queule Cove, a small fishing village in the region of Araucanía. The cove’s docks and boats were suddenly surrounded by dead fish. At least 500 tons of salmon (Oncorhynchus) were found at the mouth of the Toltén River, Rigoberto Silva, a local fisherman, told Mongabay.

Aerial view of salmon farms of Quenchi in Chiloé Island, south of Santiago. Photo by Víctor Ruiz Caballero for R35R

Environment NGO Greenpeace said the disaster was caused by pollution generated by 9,000 tons — according to their calculations — of rotting salmon that were tossed in the open ocean this March and brought  landwards by a sea current coming from Chiloé . Salmon farming companies contend that the total amount of salmon dumped was less than half of that figure, around 4,000 tons.

After the Queule Cove incident, the salmon kill reached Toltén, another fishing community in the Araucanía region. There, fishing ground to a halt as the rumor of “poisoned fish” reached both consumers and fishers. Fisherfolk knew that if they did not uncover the cause of the problem, they would not be able to sell their products.

An artisanal fisherman walks through salmon stranded in Chiloé Island on May 15, 2016. Photo by Andrés Pérez to R35R

Opinions about the cause of the crisis soon spread from Chiloé to Toltén. People looked with suspicion at the salmon industry, with its vast areas of aquaculture and the huge amounts of waste it produces, its history with antibiotics and other chemical pollutants, and the thousands of tons of dead salmon it threw into the sea with government permission.

When asked about the rumors coming from Chiloé Island, Aldo Ulloa, president of the Fishermen’s Union of the Barra del Toltén, responded: “I would not jump to conclusions because this is the first time a massive fish kill happened, but I wouldn’t rule it out either.”

The fishers were not sure if thousands of tons of decaying fish had indeed been thrown into the sea or whether they were facing an extraordinary and unprecedented red tide phenomenon.

Aldo Ulloa, an artisanal fisherman, participates in the salmon cleaning event in Chiloé Island on May 15, 2016. Photo by Andrés Pérez to R35R

Weeks later, in early May, the ecological disaster arrived at Chiloé, taking the population by surprise. Heaps of dead fish on the shores of the archipelago piled up next to masses of dead birds, crabs, several species of mollusks and even sea lions. All the species that ate the rotten fish also died.

Artisanal fishers and their families blockaded the roads. The streets were filled with bonfires, makeshift kitchens and barricades of burning tires.

The government mobilized the Carabineros (the Chilean national police force), but the fishers continued with the demonstrations. Six communities (Castro, Curaco de Vélez, Puqueldón, Queilen, Dalcahue and Quinchao) represented in the Provincial Bureau of Chiloé demanded guarantees that the government would cover their financial losses and explain why salmon farms had been authorized to throw tons of salmon into the sea. The archipelago had neither fish nor tourism left, and the supply of necessities such as fuel began to diminish.

“Chile is suffering one of the most severe environmental and social disasters in its history. Although there is a scientific consensus that we are facing a very serious red tide episode, this happened after 9,000 tons of rotting salmon were thrown into the sea,” Greenpeace wrote on its website.

Artisanal fishers block the main streets of the Chiloé Island on May 8, 2016. Photo by Andrés Pérez to R35R

While some groups maintained the barricades, many others were seeking ways to make a living outside of fishing, long Chiloé’s principal economic activity.

This was the case for María Georgina Altamirano, an elderly woman who started collecting murta (Ugni molinae), a native Chilean fruit, after a lifetime spent gathering clams on beaches that are now polluted. “We no longer have anything to sell. They say it is contaminated and we can not sell it,” she told Mongabay.

María Georgina Barría Altamirano collects murta to make jam in the commune of Ancud, located in Chiloé. María had to reinvent her job due to the environmental disaster caused by the salmon crisis. Photo by Andrés Pérez for R35R

During the crisis of Chiloé, Michelle Bachelet’s government stuck to their original statement: the fish kill was caused by a red tide. Teresa Calfunao, leader of the Seaweed Gatherers and Environmental Conservation Association, said this explanation contradicted local knowledge: “Every villager who grew up here says that it was due to contamination. The area has a strong current, so it is very unusual for the red tide to reach it. ” She also described the state of the artisanal fishers of Chiloé: “I find despair in my people. This is exhausting.”

Meanwhile, two citizens’ organizations and the Center for Social Studies of Chiloé (CESCH) denounced salmon companies to the Superintendence for the Environment (SMA), the government agency responsible for environmental issues.

Their complaint contained three demands: clarify the matter of the dumping of 9,000 tons of dead salmon; conduct independent studies on the “overload of nutrients and organic matter” in salmon; and another study on the antibiotic use in salmon aquaculture.

Six companies were denounced in the complaint: Aquachile, Aguas Claras, Trusal S.A., Granja Marina Tornagaleones, Mar Ventisqueros and Australis Mar. Also named as potentially responsible for authorizing the salmon dumping were Chile’s marine authority – the Directorate General of Maritime Territory and Merchant Marine — and the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Service.

Workers at a salmon farming company in Chiloé, January 5, 2007. Photo by Victor Ruiz Caballero for R35R

The Salmon Industry Association (SalmonChile) issued a statement on May 10, in the midst of the crisis, disavowing responsibility for the crisis and contending that the fish kill was caused by the El Niño weather phenomenon.

“Both fishers and salmon farmers have been strongly affected by the El Niño current,” read the statement.

SalmonChile, an organization that brings together most of the companies that cultivate this resource in the country, explained that an “algae bloom” caused the death of 39,000 tons of salmon in March.

“While we had authorization to dump 9,000 tons of salmon, we made a great effort to dump the smallest amount possible: 4,000 tons … The dumping happened 130 kilometers off the Chilean coast, in a place expressly indicated by the authority and in an area with currents that move away from the continent,” argued SalmonChile.

In response to the crisis, and after negotiating cash restitution for the fishers, the Chilean government formed a group of six experts from various universities to be part of a research mission called “Cape Horn.” Over the course of 11 months, they are conducting a study determine the causes of the ecological disaster. On August 18, they presented a preview of the study.

Dead penguins and salmon on the beach of Chiloé Island. Photo by Andrés Pérez for R35R

The spokesperson for the scientists, Mónica Vásquez, reported that “the dumping of salmon does not have a causal relation with the Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB) observed in the region. The weather and oceanographic conditions were conducive to the development of these blooms more commonly known as red tides.”

More than three months after the initial disaster, Teresa Calfunao confirmed that the Chiloé’s rural sector is still in crisis. “The people who were really affected, those from the rural sector, were never paid. They were never taken into account. People on the island are frustrated and discontented. The events ceased, but the agreements were not implemented. We never thought that they would come and poison our sea.”

“There is no money circulating, no fresh money. People don’t have work. Eighty percent of the community’s money comes from men of the sea, and if they are not working, there is no money. They now look for urchins, octopus and other species not affected by the red tide,” she said.

Ana María Caillao participates in a blockade on the city streets of Castro because they did not reach an agreement with the government. Photo by Andrés Pérez for R35R

The agreement that succeeded in demobilizing artisanal fishers consisted of cash payments, with the amount depending on the extent of the damage in each community. The president of the Demersal Fishermen Association, Juan García, told the Chilean press that for each day without work, people of the sea lost 30,000 Chilean pesos (US $44), and coastal gatherers about 15 thousand (US $22). That is their whole livelihood.

In the archipelago, there are still people without jobs and people who have not yet received the money promised by the government. According to Teresa Calfunao, dead fish still haunt the coast of Chiloé. The environmental crisis is not over.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latin America (Latam) team and was first published in Spanish on our Latam site on September 2, 2016.