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Having taken a toll in Chile, salmon industry arrives in Argentina

  • Argentina’s National Aquaculture Project, signed with Norway in March 2018, aims to spur the development of the salmon industry in Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago at the southern tip of South America.
  • Environmentalists and scientists fear that errors committed on the Chilean side of Patagonia will be repeated, to the detriment of the environment on the Argentinian side.
  • Among the environmental impacts of the Chilean salmon industry are escapee fish that become established as introduced species, pollution from farms’ waste food and feces, and the overuse of antibiotics.

In March 2018 Argentina announced a partnership with Norway, the world’s top producer of salmon, to study the feasibility of developing Argentina’s own salmon industry in the Beagle Channel in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago. Although the start of the studies had not officially been announced when this article was originally published in Spanish in September, Mongabay Latam learned that the first measurements had already been taken with support from the Argentine Naval Prefecture.

People from different sectors of civil society, including environmentalists, scientists, and residents of Patagonia, have organized to oppose an industry model they say will harm the area’s environment, tourism and local fishing industry. Opponents of the partnership, known as the National Aquaculture Project, also say it will disrupt ongoing alternative efforts to develop more sustainable aquaculture methods.

The industry’s impact

Patagonia is comprised of both Argentinian and Chilean territory. And although the two countries share similar geographic conditions in the region, Argentina does not have a strong salmon industry whereas Chile produces more than 790,000 tons of the fish per year, according to official statistics from 2017.

The salmon industry in Chile has been expanding rapidly due to strong demand from Asian markets, and the Argentine government appears to have decided to join this “salmon boom.”

The National Aquaculture Project, signed in March 2018, is an agreement between Innovation Norway, a Norwegian organization that promotes the development of companies and industries; the Ministry of Agroindustry of Argentina; the Argentine Investment and Trade Promotion Agency; the Chief of the Cabinet of Ministers; and the government of Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego province.

Many people from Tierra del Fuego, known as Fueguinos, are unenthusiastic about the proposal. They fear that the pristine waters of Argentinian Patagonia will follow those of Chilean Patagonia, which have been contaminated by the growing salmon industry there. Scientific studies have verified that salmon cultivation in the Chilean regions of Los Lagos, Aysén and Magallanes, which is next to Tierra del Fuego in Argentina, has had at least five distinct impacts recognized by the industry: fish escaping from the cages in which they are raised, the overuse of antimicrobials, the spread of disease to wild stocks, contamination through excess food and fish waste, and the sustainability of salmon feed.

Salmon cages in Chile. Image by Daniel Casado.

Massive fish escapes have been recorded due to storms, vandalism, predators, human error, inadequate management, and the depletion of resources. In one of these escapes, in Calbuco in southern Chile, almost 700,000 fish fled cages owned by a Norwegian company called Marine Harvest during a storm. However, escapes also happen as a trickle: according to aquatic ecologist Iván Arismendi, small-scale escapes, which usually go unreported, if “combined, can be even larger than the escapes that are reported.”

Arismendi, an Oregon State University professor who studies the introduction of salmon in the Southern Cone of South America, which includes Patagonia, said that because salmon are “introduced species, without natural carnivorous predators, the populations of native species are decreasing due to predation and competition for food and space.”

Moreover, the fact that fish are packed densely into their cages means that they are prone to parasitic and infectious diseases. To counteract this, producers use antibiotics and antiparasitics. The overuse of antibiotics, in both farming and human medicine, has raised concern because it encourages the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. “This is compromising our ability to treat infectious diseases and undermining many advances in medicine,” said Danilo Lo Fo Wong, who heads the program to control antimicrobial resistance of the World Health Organization’s European region, in a report.

Norway has made important strides in reducing the application of antibiotics in salmonid aquaculture, a sustainable production practice that could be implemented in Tierra del Fuego. However, Alexandra Sapoznikow, coordinator of the Forum for the Conservation of the Patagonian Sea and Areas of Influence, said she is skeptical it will come to pass. “The Norwegian companies in Chile do not use the same technology as they do in their own country,” she said.

According to data from Chile’s National Fisheries and Aquaculture Service, the country used a total of more than 383 tons of antimicrobials in the production of 728,000 tons of salmon in 2016. Norway, by contrast, used just over half of a ton of antimicrobials to produce 1.3 million tons of salmon.

Trabajador alimentando a los salmones. Foto: WWF Chile-Meridith Kohut.
A worker feeding salmon. Image by Meridith Kohut for WWF Chile.

It appears this reliance on antibiotics is taking a toll on the ecosystem and the fish themselves. “It has recently been found that the bacterial diversity in a salmon farming area is reduced compared to that from a control site lacking salmon aquaculture activities,” a team of scientists wrote in a report in the Chilean Journal of Infectiology. “The decrease in biological diversity produced by this excessive use of antimicrobials also facilitates bacterial infections of the cultured fish with new and emerging fish pathogens resistant to antimicrobials.”

“Native species can be contaminated with illnesses if they come into contact with the salmon that escape their cultivation areas,” said Arismendi.

Another problem is that an excess of organic material from the food and feces of caged salmon falls to the ocean floor, introducing too many nutrients into the water. This can cause algae blooms that consume the oxygen in the water, a phenomenon known as eutrophication that can cause marine life to die on the ocean floor. According to a 2018 report by the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA), “viral, bacterial, and parasitic [fish diseases], which the industry itself brought to the [Chilean] regions of Los Lagos and Aysén, have generated a situation of sanitary and environmental collapse with high costs for the industry, obligating it to search for new and healthy environments in which to operate.”

Groups have also raised concerns about the sustainability of the salmon feed. In a 2018 report, the Forum for the Conservation of the Patagonian Sea and Areas of Influence stated that “studies assert that some forms of aquaculture, such as that of salmon, have implicated an increase in the demand for wild species utilized to feed the introduced species,” and that “the collapse of some fisheries, such as the one for pompano fish in Chile, is related to the production of food sources for salmon.”

However, in the last few years the industry has been able to significantly reduce the weight of wild fish used to produce an equal weight of salmon, from a ratio of 5:1 to between 1.2:1 and 1.5:1.

Cultivation alternatives with less impact

Aware that the salmon industry has settled into the Southern Cone, researchers from the Austral Center for Scientific Research (CADIC by its Spanish acronym) in Argentina ventured into a cultivation technique that could help mitigate the industry’s impacts: multi-trophic aquaculture. The project, developed in coordination with Argentina’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation, involves cultivating three types of aquatic organisms together: trout (which belong to the Salmonidae family), mussels (which function as water filters), and cochayuyo, a type of seaweed that can capture and metabolize nitrogenous waste from fish.

Gustavo Lovrich, a researcher with the National Scientific and Technical Research Council of Argentina, told Mongabay Latam that the objective of the project is to measure and monitor the impacts of the cultivation of trout in the environment and determine how the impact of this three-species production system compares with that of the traditional system. “It is an alternative method to reduce the environmental problems that the salmon industry produces,” Lovrich said.

A salmon cultivation center. Image by Denisse Mardones for WWF Chile.

However, the government’s announcement of the agreement with Norway came as a harsh shock for those involved in multi-trophic aquaculture. “What is going to happen, necessarily, is that the environment will change and we won’t be able to know if multi-trophic farming will work,” Lovrich said.

The government of Tierra del Fuego province promised to provide $95,000 and operational support so that Innovation Norway, which contributed $25,000 of that total, could complete the technical studies for Argentina’s National Aquaculture Project. According to the province’s secretary of agroindustry and fisheries, Kevin Colli, these studies aim to “determine not only the possibilities of penetrating this industry, but also to learn the best places and types of species to develop.”

The studies’ beginnings had not officially been announced when this article was originally published. However, Lovrich told Mongabay Latam, “we know that the Naval Prefecture supported the Norwegians in doing the initial measurements about two or three months ago. They told us very informally where they were done.”

Sapoznikow of the Forum for the Conservation of the Patagonian Sea and Areas of Influence said that even though there were meetings between the ministries of environment, science and foreign affairs, there had yet to be meetings that include authorities from Tierra del Fuego (the main managers of the salmon cultivation project) prior to this story’s initial publication. Mongabay Latam tried to communicate with different governmental authorities but the requests went unanswered.

Pristine waters without aquaculture laws

In February 2018, National Geographic conducted a scientific expedition in Tierra del Fuego that confirmed ”the tremendous ecological value of this area and its fragility in the presence of any type of human impact,” according to Alex Muñoz, director of policy for the Latin American component of the institution’s Pristine Seas project. “Kelp forests, which are unique and essential habitats for many species that live in this area, on the coast of Tierra del Fuego, would be devastated if the salmon industry settles in,” he said.

Starfish at the bottom of the ocean in the Beagle Channel. Image courtesy of Beagle Secrets of the Sea.

Until now, the waters of Argentinian Patagonia have been pristine, with little human intervention beyond tourism, traditional fishing for southern king crabs, and, of course, the effects of climate change.

Lovrich of the National Scientific and Technical Research Council of Argentina is interested in studying the production of king crabs in the region. He said these animals, which live at the bottom of the sea, do not tolerate low-oxygen environments so the sediments that salmon production would deposit in their habitat could threaten the species.

Lovrich said king-crab fishing in the Beagle Channel makes up a small traditional fishery that mostly caters to the tourism industry, one of the area’s most important economic activities. This fishery is not well-monitored, despite being small, Lovrich said, and he pointed to irregularities in the government’s own catch data.

Starfish in Patagonia. Image by Vreni Häussermann.

“The same government that says it will control salmon farms is not capable of managing the small production of king crabs,” Lovrich said. And because there is no developed aquaculture industry in the area, he added, “there are not regulations for how, or with what parameters, to control the salmon farms. There have to be regulations. This legal gap could allow Argentina to be a new place to transgress all environmental rules.”

According to a report by the National Institute of Statistics and Census of Argentina (INDEC), Patagonia has the fourth-highest unemployment rate in the country. Among cities, Tierra del Fuego’s capital of Ushuaia ranks third, with an unemployment rate of 7.5 percent. In the face of the economic crisis that Argentina is experiencing, the salmon industry is positioning itself as an alternative way to expand the country’s economic productivity. In fact, in Chile, the salmon industry created around 61,000 jobs and contributes more than $20 million annually to municipal funds in payment for aquaculture patents. However, in Sapoznikow’s opinion, what should be done is to “evaluate which activities are done in the area, understand their framework, and promote them, instead of applying new practices that are not established and seem to be the salvation.”

Chile: Argentina’s contaminated neighbor

Patagonia’s fjords, including the Beagel Channel, are particularly sensitive ecological systems because they are more contained than open waters. “There is not a constant exchange of water and oxygen, so for any action that incorporates organic material, the fjord has less capacity to purify it,” Sapoznikow said.

Vreni Häussermann, director of the Huinay Scientific Center, studies Patagonia’s marine ecosystems. In an interview with Mongabay Latam, she said she is currently researching the death of corals in the Patagonian fjord of Comau, Chile, where the center is located. Häussermann said she hypothesizes that the corals, home to fish and other species, died after an extreme algae bloom associated with the intense aquaculture activity in the fjord. “Since benthic organisms are more susceptive to hypoxia when under influence of elevated methane and sulfide concentrations, the hypoxia after a strong algae bloom probably killed the corals,” reads a report on the research.

A social conflict over a salmon production crisis that resulted from an outbreak of infectious salmon anemia (ISA) virus, on southern Chile’s Chiloé Island in 2016. Image by Daniel Casado.

Häussermann said the waters of Chilean Patagonia are contaminated, largely due to aquaculture. “It is an industry that is recognized as having an extreme impact because it gives rise to many nutrients and chemicals in the water,” she said. Häussermann’s other studies have demonstrated the role of this contamination in the proliferation of red tide, which has provoked ecological disasters, such as the deaths of 337 whales in the fjords of Chilean Patagonia in 2015.

Plenty of things are making Argentinian Fueguinos nervous at the prospect of the salmon industry taking hold in the Beagle Channel, even though the specifics are still being planned. Many hope that the government knows how to learn from Chile’s errors so the Beagle Channel continues to be one of the last ends of the Earth, a refuge where people from all over the world can go to find solitude amid nature in its purest state.

Banner image by Daniel Casado.

This article was first published by Mongabay Latam. Edits by Rebecca Kessler.

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