An algal bloom in Chile has killed 6,000 metric tons of fish kept in cages in southern Chile. The national environmental agency (“SMA”) has opened an investigation into the matter, to better understand what caused it and if it could have been better contained. Whilst they remove dead fish from cages, authorities will not wish to be reminded of a similar algal bloom in 2016, which killed 40,000 metric tons of salmon.
According to a director of a Chilean aquaculture company, the industry and authorities continue to be too reactive rather than proactive, “The industry needs to be more proactive but it is not always possible in such dynamic environments. We must remember that the industry has grown rapidly in just four decades, considerably shorter timescales than livestock or poultry.”
“The industry needs to be more proactive but it is not always possible in such dynamic environments.”
Director, Chilean aquaculture company
A local investor believes the government is doing enough, “The government is striving to perfect regulatory frameworks without unduly harming the industry. Currently, it has the advantage of not facing significant pressure from public opinion, there is more concern about the political crisis.”
The damage from this particular event may be minimal but it should serve to sharpen the attention of the industry and government to environmental issues. An industry executive commented, “The damage to the industry will amount to several million dollars, much less than the damage suffered from the ISA virus, so producers, marketers and investors remain confident. These events happen from time to time and the industry must adapt to improve resilience and sustainability.”
A distributor of marine producers in Chile agrees there will be very little impact, “Much of the salmon Chile produces is exported and these have hardly been affected by these events, the pandemic has been much more problematic.”
Chile’s salmon exports dropped 14.6% in 2020 following a slump in demand from China after Beijing authorities warned about COVID-19 risks in imported seafood. The Salmon Council of Chile said that after a disastrous January 2021 with a 17.1% drop in exports compared to 2020, February and March registered 1.8% and 3.2% improvements on the same months last year.
Chilean authorities pointed to climate change and irresponsible fish farming as the main causes for the algal bloom. Greenpeace confirmed that the discharge of contaminated and untreated water affects marine ecosystems and risks repetition of the phenomenon. In this context, Greenpeace Chile said that it was looking at the filing of a criminal complaint before the Public Ministry to further investigate the matter.
A salmon producer responded to the claims of irresponsible fish farming, “The same people who consider salmon cages artificial, consider livestock pastures to be natural. There is a huge lack of knowledge and understanding of our industry.”
“The same people who consider salmon cages artificial, consider livestock pastures to be natural.”
Salmon producer, Chile
The government has traditionally been lenient with respect to the activities of big fishing companies in southern Chile. Aside from its export potential, the industry sustains a parallel agribusiness chain to feed the fish. Thus, during the first months of the pandemic, it was one of the few industries which was allowed to operate at full speed. However, pressure on the government from environmental organisations, law firms and local communities is rapidly increasing with the increase in environmental disasters caused by salmon farming.