Chile's massive salmon escape raises concern, and questions

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Salmon farms in Chile. Photo: OCEANA/ Lucas ZanartuSalmon farms in Chile. Photo: OCEANA/ Lucas Zanartu
By Tomas Moggia
Translated by Brent Harlow
In early July, an escape of unprecedented proportions at a salmon farm run by the Norwegian salmon farming giant Marine Harvest caused a national uproar in Chile. Greenpeace called it “an environmental disaster with severe and unimaginable consequences.” According to reports, a storm producing strong winds and rain caused serious structural damage to the Punta Redonda fish farm on Huar Island, located just south of Puerto Montt in the Los Lagos region, freeing some 690,000 Atlantic salmon.
Due to the large-scale nature of the event, Chile's Superintendency of the Environment (SMA) asked the regional environmental court to issue an Urgent and Transitional Measure (MUT), which closed down salmon fish farm operations at the site for 30 days due to its imminent and grave environmental and public health impacts. The company itself declared that they had temporarily suspended their operations voluntarily. The National Fishing Service (Sernapesca) said that Marine Harvest Chile may receive a fine of 143 million Chilean pesos ($US 222,000) and possibly the loss of its operating permit.
According to the SMA, the environmental permit that the company has does not consider measures for reparation, compensation, or mitigation of any impact that may follow such a massive escape, and it was determined that in two of the damaged cages, about 463,000 individual salmon were being treated with an antibiotic called florfenicol, which makes them unfit for human consumption. Despite repeated warnings from authorities about this, there have been numerous reports of salmon being sold illegally and intensively in the Calbuco and Puerto Montt areas, a situation which Marine Harvest Chile also has confirmed.
The Coastal Border Defense Committee, also known as “Calbuco Emergente,” affirms that the company, instead of using the 20 circular floating cages set forth in their permit, used rectangular cages for at least four years. Whatsmore, it has been alleged that the fish at the Punta Redonda salmon farm were infested by caligus (sea lice) and the bacterial diseases SRS and BKD.
Photo: OCEANA/Lucas ZanartuPhoto: OCEANA/Lucas Zanartu
The salmon escapees are mature, averaging 3.4 kilos (7.5 pounds) in weight, and prior to their breaking free were planned for harvesting in two more months. Currently, several weeks after the escape, only a small fraction of the salmon have been recaptured -- around 40,000 -- a little more than 5% of the total.
Under Chilean law, a company has 30 days to recover at least 10% of their escaped salmon. If this does not occur, then the government must declare that environmental damage has occurred. To avoid such a fate, the company is attempting to recapture the fish by, among other things, paying local fishermen 7,000 pesos ($US 10.85) per trapped fish.
There exist few studies about the environmental impacts of salmon escapes on Chilean ecosystems, but experts say the likely outcomes are not encouraging.
“They are telling people that since these fish feed on pellets, they are accustomed to being fed, and they will not feed on their own. That is a lie," said Lisabeth van der Meer, executive director of Oceana Chile. "These fish are invasive carnivores. When they get hungry, they will eat absolutely anything they encounter. They are predatory fish."
In fact, a study carried out between 1995 and 1996 found that 20% of 271 escaped salmon had native fish in their stomachs, with an average of 25 pejerreyes and 40 motes per salmon stomach, so experts suspect that the fish escapees from the Punta Redonda farm will indeed migrate in search of other fish to feed upon. 
Photo: GreenpeacePhoto: Greenpeace
Atlantic salmon are not a native species to Chile. The fish is an introduced, invasive species originally from the west coast of the United States and Canada. Local officials fear that, due to the magnitude of this event, there is a strong likelihood that some of the salmon will find suitable areas to settle and reproduce: a phenomenon that has already occured elsewhere in Chile with species such as Chinook salmon, rainbow trout, and brown trout.
“Clearly, the ecosystem is very fragile and such an escape is going to cause irreparable harm. I doubt they are going to reproduce. But they can live in the fjords for three or four years, so the ecological damage they can cause from feeding is of great concern,” adds Oceana's Lisabeth van der Meer.
In recent days, the SMA ordered the implementation of seven provisional measures at the Punta Redonda farm. Among them, that they remove all structures and clear the seafloor; institute a program of periodic reconnaissance overflights to rule out mortalities in the Seno de Reloncaví; devise a plan for disposing of any mortalities they find; and implement a plan for environmental vigilance of the region's most important rivers and fresh water sites.
A strict monitoring of the area could turn out to be key for avoiding the naturalization of the species, since in cases of massive Atlantic salmon escapes in the United States, there have been instances of individuals recaptured in rivers more than 100 kms (62 miles) away from their source.
“Events like this one dramatically increase uncertainty about whether we can preserve the functional integrity of the marine ecosystems as currently constituted. Therefore, prevention should be top priority in our efforts,” says Rodrigo Torres, a marine biologist and oceanographer at the Coyhaique-based environmental research group Centro de Investigación en Ecosistemas de la Patagonia (CIEP). 
Photo: InvasalPhoto: Invasal
Lack of contingency plans
One aspect of this story that has generated the greatest controversy is the lack of preparation and sheer capacity in Chile to handle an event of this magnitude, both by the company and the salmon industry. Where are the prevention, mitigation, and emergency measures? Whatsmore, when faced with an incident with these characteristics, one gets the impression that there is a high degree of permissiveness on the part of Chile's environmental and fishing authorities when it comes to salmon farming. Is there a lack of funding? Is it necessary to raise the evaluation standards in environmental impact studies? Or is this sort of aquaculture simply unfeasible in the Patagonian fjords?
“On repeated occasions, we’ve seen that there is no emergency protocol. The industry is not prepared. But it is also because they lose nothing: the salmon companies have insurance for such events. The companies that are insuring salmon farms need to have stricter requirements. Ultimately, it is all Chileans who lose the most with these escapes, and that is troubling,” asserts van der Meer.
Fernando Villarroel, general manager of Marine Harvest Chile, indicated to El Mercurio that “we will start a scientific investigation, with independent investigators, that will allow us to specify the probable environmental impact of this escape.” Once that happens, it will also be necessary to determine if the company will pay for recovering the ecosystem, a task which is, in itself, complex.
“The legislation must evolve to ensure safe industry practices that prevent these accidents,” says Torres, adding that “our environmental legislation favors human activities whose environmental externalities are much greater than the fines they must pay for failure to comply with some norm.”
Van der Meer goes further and wonders aloud if this kind of economic activity ought to be even practiced in the waters of southern Chile. “The industry has to commit to minimizing the risks of salmon farming, and that is something we have never seen from them. The quantity of antibiotics and antiparasitics they are using does not represent a serious effort to confronting these problems. This is what is especially worrisome. We don’t see much will from industry to change its practices.”
Recently, the environmental consequences stemming from the escape of some 200,000 salmon from a Cooke Aquaculture site in the United States led to a decision earlier this year by the state of Washington to close down altogether the salmon farming industry there by 2025. Might Chilean authorities consider such action when evaluating the future of the salmon industry in the country? Only time will tell the true significance of this massive salmon escape for the industry, and for Chile.