How to save Patagonia's environment: Interview with Alex Muñoz of National Geographic

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One of the world’s last regions with vast stretches of untouched nature, Patagonia, at the lower tip of South America, is host to an extraordinary geography of endless mountains, immense ice glaciers, snowcapped volcanoes, pristine temperate rainforests, and hundreds of clear, blue-green rivers and lakes. Scientists say the Chilean side of the Patagonian Andes – which is more verdant because of more rainfall than the drier steppe areas that predominate to the east in Argentina – is one of six "hot spots" on the planet with the greatest biodiversity, greatest number of undiscovered species, and greatest human threats to that diversity.
Today, this amazing landscape is not what it once was. The environmental conflicts in Patagonia mirror the dilemmas behind our larger global environmental crisis, and some cases are direct consequences of actions taking place across the globe. The metaphorical train has left the station and Patagonian nature is under constant threat as the pace of change in the region quickens due to improved access, technological advances, and migration from cities driven by drought, climate change and the covid-19 pandemic accelerating changes in living and working patterns. At the same time, big business continues to spread its appetite for unspoilt water, minerals, timber, and other natural resources and finis terrae, or the uttermost ends of the earth, is an inevitable target.
Patagon Journal has always been a magazine driven foremost by its love for nature and wild places in Patagonia. In December 2021,  Patagon Journal celebrated 10 years publishing its magazine. As such, we thought this would be a good time to evaluate the challenges facing Patagonia’s environment over the rest of this decade. To this end, we consulted with diverse environmental leaders, scientists, and journalists from Argentina, Chile, and around the globe, and in the current issue of our magazine we outline an environmental agenda for the next 10 years.
In this interview, our executive editor, Jimmy Langman, spoke with Alex Muñoz, the Latin America director for National Geographic Pristine Seas, an initiative that since 2008 has contributed to the creation of 26 marine reserves around the world, including two off the southernmost tip of Patagonia: the 55,600 square kilometer Diego Ramírez Island marine park in Chile and the adjacent 69,000 square kilometer Yaganes marine park in Argentina. From 2008 to 2016, Alex was the executive director of Oceana’s office in Chile, where he spearheaded campaigns on salmon farming, among other issues. While a law student at the University of Chile, he filed a freedom of expression case with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that ultimately led to the end of film censorship in Chile. Excerpts:
Patagon Journal: What needs to be done to lower the salmon farming threat in the Patagonia region?
Muñoz: Patagonia is one of the most important land and marine ecosystems in the world, comparable to the Amazon or the Serengeti. It’s a place with incredible ecological value that also has potential to provide jobs through sustainable activities. Unfortunately, Chile has promoted salmon farming in Patagonia for the last 40 years, which has had an enormous environmental impact. We cannot afford to lose anymore of Patagonia due to salmon farms. I hope that the government of President Boric will adopt measures to protect the most valuable areas in the Patagonian fjords that are threatened by salmon farms. If an economic sector like salmon farming hasn’t been sustainable for 40 years, it never will.
Should there be a complete moratorium on salmon farming?
Well, the world has changed, and now protecting the last wild places on Earth has become much more urgent than it was in the past because we are in the middle of the largest, biggest environmental crisis in history. We need a healthy Patagonia if we want to have a better chance of surviving that climate and environmental crisis. I’m convinced that, in the long run, salmon farms should leave Patagonia for good. We cannot have economic activities with such an incredibly high environmental impact. Those activities that hurt nature so badly, they don’t have a future, they cannot keep being tolerated by nations. So, I do think Patagonia will have to be free of salmon farming in the future. But as a first step we’ve recommended that salmon farms by removed from the Kawésqar National Reserve, whose ecological and cultural value today is at risk because of salmon farms.
It seems like more and more people in Chile are against salmon farming nowadays.
I think what is happening is that people in Patagonia have an economical alternative to salmon farming. Together with making salmon aquaculture leave certain territories, we need to support economic activities, such as nature tourism, that can provide jobs and income to the communities forever if we do it right. But it’s very important that any transition is fair to the people that will have to look for another job, we cannot make workers’ pay for the elimination of salmon farms. This is not their fault, they’re just working, and they deserve to be supported while they transition to a different activity. But we must do this sooner than later. We cannot afford to keep losing areas of Patagonia that cannot be replaced if we destroy them.
Do you think that salmon farming pollution is connected to recent incidents of mass death of whales along the Aysen coast?
I will leave that to the scientists. There’s some hypothesis that have linked pollution from salmon farms to some toxic algae blooms that could hurt the local fauna. I think that’s a plausible hypothesis. I encourage universities and the government to keep researching for the link between the pollution from salmon farms and algae blooms that have been happening more often in Patagonia. With the information I have I do think there could be a combination of factors between the rising temperatures and the presence of massive organic pollution from salmon farms creating this perfect storm that manifests into toxic algae blooms.
Is climate change one of the reasons the salmon industry wants to intensify their expansion to southern Patagonia?
Salmon farms have been moving south in search of cleaner waters, because their activity has been leaving entire parts of the fjords without oxygen and full of diseases. And instead of solving those problems, they have been moving south in search of unpolluted waters. The problem is that we are already seeing the same problems in Magallanes, which used to be a very pristine area.  
Some salmon farming companies say that they’ve learned their lesson and have become environmentally sustainable. Are their green certifications legit?
Well, salmon farming in Chile is the cultivation of exotic and invasive species. So, there’s no way salmon farming in Patagonia can ever be considered a green activity. Also, the salmon farming concessions that have been certified as sustainable have all had severe environmental problems. I think that those green certificates have lost all credibility and don’t serve the purpose of informing the consumers about the reality of salmon farms.
This is just greenwashing, then?
Absolutely. They are greenwashing. They don’t give reliable information to the consumers about the huge impact their “certified” operations have on the Patagonian environment. Some of the companies that have been awarded these green certifications have even been condemned by courts in Chile for lying about their mortalities and the destruction of the seafloor in order to hide the fact that those places have become completely deprived from oxygen. I’m talking about Nova Austral, a company that has a terrible environmental record and is also the one that wants to invade the Kawésqar National Reserve with new salmon farms.
That’s the same company that wanted to set up a salmon farm at Isla Navarino, right?
Yes, exactly, that’s the one. Incredibly enough that same company that was condemned for lying about their mortalities and environmental impact was retributed by the Chilean state with 137 million pesos using the benefits from the Navarino Law.
Read “An Environmental Agenda for Patagonia” in the current edition of Patagon Journal.Read “An Environmental Agenda for Patagonia” in the current edition of Patagon Journal.

Should the global community get involved in the conservation and environmental protection of the Patagonia region?
Yes. Humanity will not survive unless we protect the last wild places that are left on the planet. Patagonia is one of the most important wild ecosystems that we have. Since most of the environmental problems today are global, we need to make sure that these wild places are preserved all around the world. For instance, in Patagonia you have native forests and huge areas covered by kelp that can sequestrate CO2 on a large scale. If we lose that we won’t only be damaging communities in Patagonia, but we would be undermining one of the best mechanisms to control global climate change.
The kelp is also an important source of food for the endangered great blue whale.
The kelp forest is an incredible habitat that make the life of hundreds of species possible. In Patagonia, we are so privileged to have this massive kelp forest in such good shape, but we will lose them if we don’t stop activities that hurt them and degrade them like salmon farms. Also, climate change will probably start reducing the kelp forest coverage, because they are so sensitive to temperature change. We are at a very fragile point where these mechanisms, these natural tools that we have to mitigate climate change, can also be lost because of the changing climate.
Chile has been exceptional in creating new national parks in Patagonia and marine protected areas, what conservation gaps currently remain?
I praise Chile for being a leader in marine conservation and creating such big marine parks. But we do have to have a better representation in conservation among the different regions in this country. While there are some regions, like the Juan Fernández Archipelago, almost completely protected in marine parks there are other areas like the Patagonian fjords that have very little protection and that are being targeted by salmon farms. That’s why any prohibition of salmon farms must go further than just removing salmon farms from the actual protected areas, because there are other areas that are equally important and that still don’t have any legal protection. We’ve been around Patagonia in the Magallanes region and some places really deserve to be protected as a national park.
What are some of those places?
Diego Ramirez Island doesn’t have a national park on land, and they have the largest colony of albatross in Chile. Diego Ramirez is the southernmost point in the continent, south of Cape Horn. In 2017, we recommended a national park for the Diego Ramirez Islands, and only the ocean was protected but on land there’s no designated protected area.
There is also a lack of marine reserves closer to the coast.
Yes. One of the big benefits, according to our research, is that marine reserves increase productivity. Chile needs a lot of marine parks completely protected combined with well-managed areas where local fishing can keep happening. If we do that, we will have a much more sustainable fishing sector and better protection for the biodiversity that we have along the coast.
Is there still a problem with overfishing in Chile?
Chile hasn’t been able to eliminate overfishing. Unfortunately, the current fishing law still gives a lot of discretion to the government to adopt or not some measures to manage our fisheries. And we’ve seen in the past years that the government hasn’t been strict enough to recover fisheries that have been in decline for decades. One of the best examples is the common hake (merluza), which is one of the favorite fish for human consumption in Chile and has been declared a collapsed or overexploited fishery for many years now and it has shown very little signs of recovery. That is the government’s responsibility, and we need not only a better fishing law, but also a government willing to go against the interests of fishers that will have to fish less if we want to recover these fish populations. Also, we need a better strategy to combat illegal fishing that we know is happening in our waters.
What more could Chile do to combat illegal fishing?
It’s clear that the National Fishery Service doesn’t have enough resources to control such a vast ocean in Chile. Illegal fishing is happening mainly by Chilean informal fishers, and there is insufficient control over the industrial fleet that discards a lot of their catch when they’re at sea. We need to have a better presence of scientific observers and better control in ports in points where the fish are being sold, like the fish markets. Also, we need to introduce better technologies, so we have a complete traceability of the fish that have been illegally caught so we make sure that any fish that you buy in a restaurant or in a market has a known origin.
What are some other concrete actions that can be taken by Chile and Argentina to help protect Patagonia?
Chile and Argentina should make Patagonia an area known for its nature and its culture and should get rid of anything that undermines that. We need to make sure that Patagonia is well preserved and allows economic activities that are compatible with the protection of the environment. It’s very clear that by having a nature-based economic strategy we can preserve the ecosystem and create enough jobs and income for the people, even more jobs and income that salmon farming is providing today.


Through October 2022, each week visit for more interviews in this special series. Read "An Environmental Agenda for Patagonia" in the current issue of the magazine. Subscribe today or look for the magazine at our stockists