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New environmental rules for Chile’s protected areas rile the salmon industry

  • A law that came into force in Chile last year has upset the salmon industry for imposing new requirements for salmon farms located in protected areas.
  • The industry says the new rules threaten jobs and cause uncertainty in an industry that contributes 2% of Chile’s GDP.
  • The salmon industry currently has 71 applications for concessions within protected areas, most of which wouldn’t meet the conditions laid out in the new rules.
  • Conservation experts say the salmon industry’s reaction to this attempt at regulation is “unfortunate,” especially given its history of environmental harm.

Chile’s salmon-farming industry, a major driver of the economy, has lashed out at new rules restricting its operation in protected areas, but environmental groups say the change is necessary, given the industry’s history of environmental violations.

The new rules are laid out in a memorandum issued in October by Chile’s Ministry of the Environment, as a derivative of a new law creating the Biodiversity and Protected Areas Service (SBAP).

According to the memorandum, salmon-farming concessions can still be granted across three types of protected areas: national parks, multiple-use conservation areas, and Indigenous reserves. However, protected areas with a salmon concession must have a management plan, which includes scientific data about the area, the barriers to sustainable development, and a series of required management practices.

The salmon industry accounts for 2% of Chile’s GDP. Image courtesy of the Magallanes Salmon Farmers Association.

Salmon projects must also obtain a favorable report from the SBAP, and their activities must comply with protecting the area’s biodiversity in line with its management plan.

In its memorandum, the Ministry of the Environment also said salmon projects in protected areas without management plants are on hold.

This has alarmed the salmon industry; there are currently 71 applications in process for salmon-farming concessions in protected areas, according to data from the Ministry of the Environment. Most of these concessions are within Las Guaitecas National Reserve and Kawésqar National Park, neither of which has a management plan.

Tensions are high not just between the government and the salmon industry. A representative of the opposition National Renewal party, Marcia Raphael, accused the government of seeking to impose its ideology through administrative means. She submitted the memorandum to the Government Accountability Office to analyze its legality.

According to expert conservation lawyers, the memorandum doesn’t contain any new information.

“The legal paper only establishes what the SBAP law says, which is that concessions will not be granted in protected areas if they do not comply with an area’s management plan, among other points,” says Ezio Costa, a lawyer and executive director of the environmental NGO FIMA.

Eduardo König, a lawyer and researcher at the Terram Foundation, another environmental NGO, said the memorandum “is merely a communication; not an instruction to the government agencies in charge of granting different types of concessions.”

The first complaints

Chilean President Gabriel Boric announced the establishment of the SBAP on Oct. 2, 2023.

“After 13 years, [the SBAP] has become law and obligates us to comply with it; it is not a declaration of intentions,” he said in the city of Hijuelas. Surrounded by nature, he addressed some of the younger participants in particular, saying “children must demand our compliance.”

The SBAP’s entry into force completes a process that began in 2010 with the creation of the Ministry of the Environment. Together with the Environmental Assessment Service (SEA) and the Superintendency of the Environment (SMA), the SBAP seeks to strengthen environmental institutions. Its primary mission is to strengthen the protection of territories and biodiversity, as well as to increase protection against the impacts of climate change.

However, the creation of this new service has raised the ire of the fishing industry throughout the process, particularly the salmon industry.

Corals in Chile’s Kawésqar National Park. Image courtesy of Manu San Félix/National Geographic.

Between March and June 2023, as Congress discussed the SBAP, several protests took place in response to the portion of the bill that sought to amend the General Fisheries and Aquaculture Law to prevent new concessions from being granted within protected areas. Industry workers, citing fears of losing their jobs, led the demonstrations.

Environment Minister Maisa Rojas at the time responded that “the bill sought to safeguard protected areas, areas that we have decided to take care of due to their biodiversity value and the benefits they provide us. To comply with this, the Nature Law prohibits new salmon-farming concessions — the current ones, however, are being maintained.”

This, she indicated, meant the initiative was not expected to impact current jobs in the industry.

However, Congress ended up rejecting the SBAP legislation in June, before finally passing it in July.

Now, following the publication of the new memorandum, the salmon industry has once again expressed discontent, despite the fact that the law allows concessions within protected areas under certain conditions.

Kawésqar National Park’s marine area includes the Strait of Magellan. Image courtesy of Pristine Seas/National Geographic.

“It’s hard to understand why regulations are issued that cause uncertainty within a productive sector that contributes 2% of the country’s gross domestic product and is the second-largest exporter,” said SalmonChile, an industry association. “[Chile] needs investments and economic growth.”

An in-person debate

Rojas met on Oct. 11 last year with salmon industry representatives for a session of Congress’s fisheries committee, or CPAIM, to discuss and clarify the memorandum. She first noted that the objective of the memorandum was “to communicate relevant information to the ministries that have the power to grant concessions.”

Elizabeth Pulgar, president of the Trusal-Salmones Pacific Star union, expressed concern that salmon industry workers would lose their jobs due to these restrictions. “This is a new threat that’s emerging,” she said.

Trabajador alimentando a los salmones. Foto: WWF Chile-Meridith Kohut.
A worker feeds salmon in a pen. Image courtesy of Meridith Kohut/WWF Chile.

Pulgar acknowledged that the industry had caused damage, but said that “quality standards are respected.” She also said the industry’s workforce is currently “made up of 60% women who have called on the industry to do things the right way.”

Similarly, Paola Sanhueza, president of the Federation of Salmon Workers (Fetrasalmón), said that “no one is against the SBAP law, on the contrary protecting the environment is of course a positive thing.” However, she invited authorities to visit salmon farms, adding that they “have made positive progress in the last 10 years.”

But according to a report by the Terram Foundation, no public body has compiled historical employment figures for the salmon industry. König says this “makes it difficult to gain a clear understanding of the sector’s contribution or impact in terms of direct and indirect jobs.”

After listening to salmon industry workers’ concerns, Rojas said she was “convinced” that maintaining employment while ensuring concessions comply with requirements is “absolutely compatible.”

Concern about the salmon industry’s history

Despite the industry’s claims, the Terram Foundation says the government’s environmental watchdog, the SMA, has initiated more than 35 sanctions proceedings against salmon companies for their sea-based fish farms in 2023 alone, based on interviews with industry workers. In most cases, the sanctions are for noncompliance within the environmental concessions.

At the beginning of 2023, the SMA initiated five sanctions proceedings against the company Australis Mar due to the overproduction of salmon in eight of the company’s fish farms, according to the company. All of Australis Mar’s farms are located in protected areas within Patagonia: seven are inside Las Guaitecas National Reserve and one in Kawésqar National Park.

Australis Mar’s eight salmon farms are all located in protected areas. Image courtesy of Australis Mar.

In 2022, the SMA revoked the environmental permits of another company, Nova Austral, for three of its fish-fattening centers and imposed a hefty fine, also on findings of overproduction. The penalty followed an investigation that used sediment analysis, sampling and underwater filming to show that the company had caused environmental damage in the waters of Alberto de Agostini National Park after exceeding the maximum authorized production level.

Another significant case occurred in 2021, when more than 5,000 metric tons of dead salmon were recorded due to a harmful algal bloom, known as a “brown tide,” which threatened marine ecosystems in Patagonia. In this incident, the government accepted that the cause of the algal bloom — a phenomenon that creates large patches of oxygen-depleted “dead zones” in the water — was a natural event, though scientists said the salmon industry also played a role.

Brown tide in the Comau Fjord. Image courtesy of Alvaro Vidal.

“It is unfortunate to witness an industry reacting angrily to legislation, and that is unable to take a look at itself, let alone commit itself effectively to compliance,” wrote Flavia Liberona, executive director of the Terram Foundation.

Banner image of a salmon farm in Chile, courtesy of Denisse Mardones/WWF Chile.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on Oct. 31, 2023.

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