CODEFF: Serious health and environmental crisis in the Gulf of Penas and Aysén Fjord

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Translation by Brent Harlow
In recent weeks, the media, the National Fishing and Agriculture Service (SERNAPESCA), and universities have all joined efforts to “contain” a health and environmental crisis involving two distinct phenomena. The first is playing out at salmon farms in the Aysén Fjord, the second involves a red tide event further to the southwest, in the Gulf of Penas, facing the Pacific Ocean.
The phenomenon affecting the salmon industry in the Aysén Fjord most likely involves a conjunction of environmental problems, including the formation of algae blooms, and large-scale mortality events caused by outbreaks of the bacterial infection Salmonid Rickettsial Syndrome (SRS), which neither the state (through the work of SERNAPESCA), nor universities, nor private companies seem to be able to explain. So far, the case of red tide in the Gulf of Penas has not been explained either, and although the two phenomena are distinct, they share a common denominator: the salmon industry.
The environmental and health crisis playing out in the Aysén Fjord is so complex that the analysis of the salmon deaths carried out in recent weeks has been unable to determine if the fish died from the algae bloom or from SRS. Why is it, then, that these analyses are unable to distinguish between a fish killed by algae bloom and one killed by SRS?
According to Héctor Kol, a researcher for CODEFF tasked with studying the matter, it is surprising that public services and private laboratories are not able to determine if a fish died from asphyxiation due to reduced levels of oxygen dissolved in the water column, or if it died by being torn apart on the inside and outside by lesions caused by SRS.
Kol adds that questions as to how many dead salmon have been found in the Aysén Fjord, where the dead salmon have been taken, and what has been done with them have not been answered by the authorities. “In other words, not only has no explanation been given for the combined event, but also no account has been given for how many fish have died, where they were taken, and how they were disposed of. Much more surprising is that both officials at SERNAPESCA and representatives of the private companies involved have suggested that such large-scale mortality events in the Aysén Fjord are a new or rare phenomenon, difficult to predict and understand at the level of root causes,” Kol emphasizes.
Chronicle of a death foretold
In a recent study he conducted, Kol reports that since the 1990s, the salmon industry has been active in the Aysén Fjord without performing any studies to assess its environmental impact or to determine whether or not the industry’s presence there can be justified on these grounds. In this time, the Aysén Fjord has come to the point of total environmental collapse, which is precisely what is seen in these entirely predictable large-scale salmon mortality events.
The salmon farms have admitted, in their own reports, that there are “anaerobic” conditions in their systems. This is to say that farming is causing environmental conditions that make it impossible to sustain sea life, according to the definition of “anaerobic” conditions used by the General Law of Fishing and Aquaculture (Ley General de Pesca y Acuicultura). This situation of anaerobiosis in the fjord, according to Kol, represents the first sign of the system’s advanced eutrofication—i.e., a situation in which the organic waste material generated by the salmon operations exceeds the system’s capacity to absorb or disperse it. This is a necessary condition for the growth of an algae bloom or a toxic red tide.
As such, to attribute the occasional loss of the conditions required to sustain the farming of salmon (the loss of sufficient oxygen dissolved in a column of water) to a diatom is merely a way of distracting attention away from a situation that is actually ongoing, and not occasional: the Aysén Fjord is currently undergoing the total loss of the conditions needed to raise salmon and sustain aquatic life in general.
The situation of SRS in the Aysén Fjord is well known and is not different from what is happening across the entire Aysén Region with regard to this bacterial disease, which is the principal cause of mortality in salmon culture and accounts for almost 79% of national salmon production’s losses of Atlantic salmon in 2014.
Although the National Fishing Service (SERNAPESCA) has withheld access to information about the farms affected by SRS in the southern regions from 2013 to 2015, provisional data from the period between 2011 and 2013 indicate that more than half of the salmon farms in the Aysén Fjord have reported the presence of SRS in their stocks. It is therefore not accurate to speak of an “outbreak of SRS” in the Fiordo Aysén. It would be more correct to say that SRS infection indicates an enduring condition, one not restricted just to the fjord, but rather one that affects the entire region.
In other words, the “crisis” of SRS in the Aysén Fjord is a small part of a much larger and enduring crisis affecting salmon farming in the entire region.
Nor are the deaths caused by the presence of SRS surprising. Recently, in November 2016, the Federation of Unions of the Sea (FESIMAR) had to intervene to protect the lives of salmon farm workers in the Melinka region who, without any protective measures to ensure their safety, were tasked with removing dead fish infected by SRS at a farm run by the company Los Fiordos. This event was not even reported to SERNAPESCA.
A second phenomenon, as surprising to public services as the situation in the Aysén Fjord, is the red tide event affecting the Gulf of Penas, which is effectively without salmon farms, but is necessary as a transit area for the well boats that run approximately 2,000 kilometers between the Los Lagos Region and the salmon farms located in Magallanes.
At the site where, at the end of 2015, more than 300 beached whales were found, first by private individuals and later by an expedition organized by National Geographic, well boats traveling between Puerto Montt and Magallanes recorded deaths due to the presence of the dinoflagellate Karenia mikimotoi in the boats’ transport water. Later, the existence of four different species of Karenina was reported there.
Apparently, the water exchange for the two boats as they passed through the Gulf of Penas introduced the dinoflagellate into the freight of the two well boats. For one boat, this caused the death of the fish it was carrying from Magallanes to be harvested in Puerto Montt. For the other, it resulted in the loss of smolt (juvenile salmon) that were being transported from Puerto Montt to be harvested in Magallanes. A calculation of the “carbon footprint” associated with the production of salmon in Magallanes would undoubtedly turn up startling results.
Furthermore, the proliferating dinoflagellate is a species indigenous to the seas of Asia, primarily to the waters around Japan, and is defined as a species that “kills fish and mollusks.” How did it get into the Gulf of Penas?
This species has a second characteristic or trait that could give clues as to how it arrived to the coasts of the Gulf of Penas.
The Karenia mikimotoi is a dinoflagellate that flourishes in unoxidized or anaerobic marine environments found in ballast water or in salmon farms throughout the entire Los Lagos region and in Magallanes, where 53% of the salmon farms are already anaerobic, as indicated by the Contraloría General de la República in the final report 211/2016 of its audit of SERNAPESCA. The regions of Los Lagos and Magallanes, unfortunately, recently ceased to be considered pristine sea water regions.
Hundreds of studies are done for each environmental crisis, and each health crisis caused by the salmon industry. Despite there being scientific evidence of the consequences of unregulated production by the salmon industry (unregulated, because the industry does not even abide by the loose regulations that are currently in place), it still continues, and puts the Patagonian seas at risk. Further still, nothing is known about the effect of red tides on other fish and whales, and nothing is known about how the dinoflagellates arrived there. “Two years since the discovery of the dead whales, which are at risk of extinction, there are still no answers about what caused the event,” states Peter Hartmann. Meanwhile, the studies into cargo capacity that the General Law of Fishing and Aquaculture require are still not being done.
CODEFF (Comité Nacional Pro Defensa de la Flora y Fauna) is a Chilean non-governmental organization that works on conservation, environmental and sustainable development issues. More info at