Salmon Aquaculture

Salmon aquaculture is factory farming transferred from land to sea. Flying along the Chilean coastline south of Puerto Montt, one is never out of sight of salmon rearing pens, where millions of non-native Atlantic salmon are raised in ocean pens. As with factory farming operations on land, the salmon are pumped full of antibiotics and consume feed filled with artificial dyes to give them a pink color. Roughly 98 percent of the production is for export markets.

Due to a lax regulatory climate, the industry has grown explosively in Chile (800 percent since 1990), becoming a multibillion-dollar business dominated by a handful of corporations. The negative effects, beyond introducing non-native species into South American waters (large numbers of individual fish escape from rearing pens every year), include massive pollution and spread of disease. As the industrialization of a formerly intact coastlines proceeded, little scientific information on aquaculture impacts was done.

In the 1990s, the Foundation for Deep Ecology made several grants to conservation groups fighting the proliferation of salmon aquaculture on the British Columbia coast, including Friends of Clayoquot Sound and the David Suzuki Foundation. And FDE helped fund one of the first studies of the localized effects of salmon aquaculture in Chile. The findings, published in 2006 in the Journal of Marine Systems by a trio of independent biologists associated with Chilean and Irish universities, reported “strong levels of ecological degradation” and “gross pollution” near salmon farming facilities in the Pillán Fjord.

Chilean conservationists affiliated with the groups Ecoceanos, Oceana South America, Greenpeace Chile, and other NGOs are working to counter the worst abuses of the industry. Activists with Fundación Pumalín have lent support to these campaigns whenever possible, and hosted a 2007 gathering of leading Chilean activists to meet with aquaculture opponents from the U.S., Canada, Argentina, Norway, Scotland, and India. That mini-summit, funded by The Conservation Land Trust and held at Pumalín Park, was organized to improve communication between activists who are often fighting similarly destructive activities by the same corporation on different continents. In addition, the Pumalín Foundation participates in the Foro Pacifico Patagonico, a forum for Chilean-based marine-oriented NGOs to share information and coordinate their campaigns against marine ecosystems degradation.

Conservation activists in Chile have long predicted that the industry’s practices made a disease outbreak inevitable; true to those predictions, the Chilean salmon industry has experienced a collapse since 2007 with major outbreaks of sea lice and a contagious virus—infectious salmon anemia—decimating farmed salmon. The disease may have reached Chile via fish eggs imported from overseas, from areas where the disease was already present, another example of how globalized industries based on monocultures can affect natural ecosystems around the Earth.

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