Crisis in Chiloé: Interview with Ecoceanos director Juan Carlos Cárdenas

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Juan Carlos Cárdenas is a veterinarian and executive director of the Santiago-based marine protection group Centro Ecocéanos. For 38years, he has led research, conservation and activism activities in Chile and internationally on marine biodiversity and marine mammal issues. From 1990-96, he was the coordinator of Greenpeace Latin America campaigns to protect dolphins and create an Antarctica Whale Sanctuary. Cárdenas spoke with Patagon Journal's Ignacio Palma about the crisis in Chiloé, which he says is the result of 25 years of salmon industry expansion. 
 
Many sectors have sought to explain the current crisis in Chile. Chile’s Colegio de Biologos Marinos (a national association of marine biologists) maintains that the red tide and huge quantities of dead shellfish washed up on beaches are due to a global problem, El Niño. To the best of your knowledge, what is the cause?
One of the consequences of the current crisis in Chiloé has been the public doubt and mistrust of information provided by scientists and government research institutions such as the Fisheries Promotion Institute (IFOP),Colegio de Biólogos Marinos and the Chilean Society for Ocean Sciences, who have played a part in the government and salmon industry’s policy of misleading the public and controlling what information is released. The scientists have continually repeated the mantra that the salmon industry is not at all responsible for the current health, social and environmental crisis which is affecting the ecosystems and coastal resources of the north of Aysén, Chiloé, and now the shores of Valdivia as well.
It is striking that after insisting that the situation is caused by climatic and oceanographic changes brought about by El Niño, the government has just announced it will be creating a committee of “independent” scientists to determine the real reasons for this health, social, political and environmental crisis. The question is, will the committee include the same scientists and consultants who gave their “technical” opinion in order to exonerate the industry that forms part of their funding sources?
 
The Chilean salmon farming industry has been found on numerous occasions of causing water contamination due to the excessive use of nutrients, antibiotics and chemicals. What steps should the government take in the short and medium term to make the salmon industry environmentally sustainable?
There are countless studies which demonstrate the varied impacts of the salmon industry. However, the poverty and the social, environmental and health reality that is prevalent in the coastal communities after having endured 25 years of salmon industry expansion makes the situation abundantly clear.
What we are proposing is the end of large-scale salmon farming for export in the south of the country; the establishment of small and medium-scale aquaculture based on local employment for mainly national consumption; the revival of wild fisheries as a basis for economic activity in this sector; a moratorium on salmon farm expansion in the Magallanes region; the development of a democratic and sustainable national fisheries and aquaculture policy; the abolishment of the corrupt fisheries and aquaculture law and the development of a participatory consultation process in order to pass a new fisheries and aquaculture law that is democratic and sustainable.
 
The salmon industry and the Chilean government have close ties, is that relationship an unethical one?
The lack of transparency, the complicity between the private and public sectors, the revolving door between top officials from the economy ministry, and other government agencies like Subpesca, Sernapesca and Directemar, and the directors of companies and institutions dependent on the salmon and fisheries industry, all these things influence the destructive expansion of the industry and the exclusion of coastal and indigenous communities and traditional fishing, combined with the obvious political-bureaucratic-managerial corruption.
An example of this spurious link was set up by the current president of SalmonChile, who was the head of the fisheries agency in the government under former Chilean president Ricardo Lagos; and secretary of the salmon roundtable during current Chilean president Michelle Bachelet’s first term in office, which was key to implementing the government’s billion-dollar rescue plan for the salmon companies affected by the first ISA virus health crisis that occurred from 2007 to 2010.
 
What has sparked the massive social discontent in Chiloé we are seeing right now?
The unhappiness amongst the people of Chiloé started as a health and environmental conflict and along the way it transformed into a full blown social and political crisis, similar to what has happened in communities in Aysén, Mehuín, Valdivia, Freirina, Alto Huasco and Alto Maipo over other environmental conflicts. It is their response to an export-extractive model that has sacrificed local communities, natural resources and public property for the interests of investors and businessmen. Added to that is a centralist relationship, one that exploits natural resources as well as regional financial resources, and broken promises, that translate into more poverty and lack of educational infrastructure and public health services. It is also the response of a region with a strong maritime cultural identity watching its seas converted into an industrial garbage dump, its fishing resources squandered (72% are in a state of collapse or over-exploitation), and its algal and benthonic resources privatized. The Chilean president, government authorities, public officials, traditional fishing leaders and the political-business elite are under public scrutiny like never before.
 
Sernapesca, Chile’s national fisheries service, recently published a report detailing they dumped in the sea the 4,500 tons of dead salmon killed off by the prior, January red tide outbreak. Do you think there could of have been a better way to handle this problem?
There is a discrepancy between SalmonChile’s request to Sernapesca and the Chilean Navy implementing “special measures” at Sernapesca’s request, to discard 12,000 tons of dead salmon into the sea. Some official reports show 11 deposits of 4,600 tons, while others show 9,000 tons, which took place 130 miles from the Corona lighthouse on Chiloé Island.
This disgraceful behavior demonstrated how the government (Navy and Sernapesca) and the salmon industry all view our sea as a garbage dump at the service of the fishery and salmon industry. And this was all done in order to reduce the costs of this billion-dollar export industry, the result of inefficient sanitary and environmental management.
This situation could have been avoided if the authorities had not underestimated the seriousness of the algal bloom incidents but taken swift and preventative action – seeing as the first signs appeared in January – and if the salmon producers had not behaved in a slow and irresponsible manner when dealing with the disposal of the fatalities, violating the environmental regulations for aquaculture, as reported by Sernapesca and the provincial governor.
 
Chilean biologist Héctor Kol argues that the current crisis in Chiloé is due, amongst many reasons, to the eutrophication of the sea bed in some areas by the salmon industry over the past decades. Do you agree?
The crisis in Chiloé is the result of 25 years of brutal production and territorial expansion of the salmon mega-industry, an expression of the production-export centric neoliberal politics that prevail in this country. This production model works when not taking into account the carrying capacity of the fragile local aquatic ecosystems, that have generated acute eutrophication due to the growing levels of organic pollution (feces and uneaten food) which contribute very high levels of phosphorous and nitrogen, the basis for algal bloom. It is important to point out that for each ton of salmon produced, 72 kilos of nitrogen are released annually into the sea, which is equivalent to the organic waste produced annually by a population of 19 thousand people.
 
Why is the present red tide more critical now than previous red tides in Chile?
The current sanitary and environmental crisis is the result of accumulative organic and chemical pollution from the salmon industry in the Los Lagos region and now in the Los Ríos region, combined with the climatic and oceanographic changes caused by El Niño, such as increased temperatures, brightness and low oxygen levels in the surface waters of the ocean.
The high levels of nitrogen resulting from organic pollution are a major factor in toxic algal bloom. As there are no long-term policies, voluntary policies or essential resources to face these catastrophic episodes, scientists and the authorities stand by like spectators and watch it unfurl. Perhaps the most important thing is that a better informed and empowered population will demand preventative measures that protect ecosystems and a moratorium on both the current salmon industry expansion in the Aysén and Magallanes regions, and the eradication of the industry in the Los Lagos region.
 
Are the Aysén and Magallanes regions in danger of having a red tide?
Algal bloom has occurred previously in the Magallanes region. This mega episode of toxic algal bloom began in January in northern Aysén and for the last three months it has spread 300 kilometers toward the regions of Los Lagos and Los Ríos. Along with its geographic qualities, the bloom is characterized by the virulence of its neurotoxic and diarrheal poison. All of the Chilean littoral is in danger as the red tide has now left the fjords and interior canals and started to advance toward the ocean and coastal areas threatening the health, biodiversity and economy of coastal communities.
 
Is there a link between what is happening now in Chiloé and the whales that last year washed up dead in the Gulf of Penas?
It is one of the theories. This sums up the series of profound changes induced by human processes in the marine ecosystems of the southeast Pacific, the result of orthodox neoliberal policies applied over the last four decades, added to the numerous effects of global climate change. The population of marine mammals, in particular large cetaceans, are good indicators of ocean health. For this reason, we must take into account how part of drawing up a national policy for the conservation of ecosystems and aquatic biodiversity must also include the democratic, sustainable and equitable management of national and regional hydrobiological resources.
 
Translation by Katy Harris 
 
 
 
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