Chile's Flourishing Fish Farms Prompt Fears for Ecosystem

Workers at a salmon farm in Calbuco, Chile, harvest what has become the region's economic backbone, reducing unemployment and raising incomes. (Courtesy Of Paulo Vargas Almonacid)
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 2, 2007

PUERTO MONTT, Chile -- Newcomers to Patagonia can't even make it out of the airport here without encountering a stunning view of sparkling Lake Llanquihue, with the snow-peaked cone of Osorno volcano rising in the background.

It's a huge photograph hanging in the terminal, actually, and the buoys pictured floating in the glassy water give away its intent: It's an ad for commercial salmon farming, which has become the economic backbone of Patagonia's lakes region.

The salmon industry barely existed here 20 years ago, but the same crystal waters and unspoiled vistas that help power the region's booming tourist industry caught the attention of seafood producers. Now, when diners in the United States cut into a salmon fillet, odds are that the fish matured in one of the net pens constructed in this region's waters.

Spurred partly by a U.S. appetite for salmon that has quadrupled in the past decade, the massive growth of the local salmon industry now has some fearing that its best marketing tool -- that fabled Patagonian purity -- isn't quite what it used to be.

"The irony is that the same thing that caused the salmon producers to come here in the first place -- the pristine quality of the lakes -- is now being lost because of the production of salmon," said Jorge Le¿n-Mu¿oz, who co-wrote a World Wildlife Fund report detailing some of the industry's effects on the environment.

Using a clear plastic tube to bore into lakebeds, scientists can plainly view the problem. Round pellets -- the fish-based food that is fed to the salmon -- have fallen to the lakebeds unconsumed and ended up buried in the dirt. Those pellets, combined with the salmon's feces, add nutrients to the water that spur plankton growth and deplete oxygen, which can make the water unlivable for many native fish.

"You see species of algae and types of bacteria that weren't there before," said Guiliana Furci, a salmon specialist with Terram, a Santiago-based environmental research institute. "There's a huge organic input in the lakes."

According to official statistics, evidence of oxygen deficiency was found at 20 percent of salmon farms operating on Chile's lakes between 2003 and 2005.

Fishing companies use net pens in the freshwater lakes -- as well as rivers and estuaries -- to raise smolt, or young salmon, before moving them to saltwater facilities to mature. Because some of the salmon get loose from the net pens, their population in the lakes has increased at the expense of native species, most of which are much smaller. According to the World Wildlife Fund, 93 percent of native fish species in the lakes are classified as vulnerable or threatened, and 40 percent are considered endangered.

Above the water's surface, it is still incredibly easy to find natural beauty without much effort. Flowered fields stretch into snow-capped mountains, and broad blue skies are mirrored by lakes scattered liberally for miles near the Pacific coastline.

At the same time, the salmon industry is impossible to ignore in the region's population centers. Recently in this port city, for example, a newly built hotel was filled with scientists attending a conference on aquaculture biology. On the road heading south out of town, ice-packing plants line the roadway. About an hour away, the smell of fish thickens the air outside of Calbuco, a town of about 12,000 people.

Calbuco has grown 50 percent since 1991 thanks to the salmon industry, according to municipal officials. As in many other towns in the region, unemployment is down and incomes are up. About 30 percent of the region's residents -- an estimated 53,000 people -- are directly employed by salmon farms, according to local officials. Because many salmon plant workers are women, newly built day-care facilities have popped up to accommodate their children.

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