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Chile's salmon: causing conflict between environmentalists and politicians

Tompkins takes a Stand against Salmon Industry in Chile

Sept. 2, 2005 (The Santiago Times) - Sarah Dingle

Parliamentarians and Local Authorities Fight Back

U.S. businessman and ecologist Douglas Tompkins has launched a campaign to freeze further developments in Chilean salmon farming, resulting in ridicule from industry leaders and authorities.

“[The salmon industry] is worse than the smog of Santiago,” Tompkins announced. “It's silent and insidious, because no one can see exactly what's going on underwater. No one apart from the divers can see the damage at the bottom of the sea. It's a dead zone.

“We're in favor of a moratorium on any expansion of this industry until the public has a proper opportunity to know what's really going on.”

His attack comes two weeks after Parque Pumalín, a reserve of 289,000 hectares, was declared a national nature sanctuary (ST, August 19). The park is owned outright by Tompkins and will become national property after his death. Tompkins has expressed concerns that the ecology of Region X, including Pumalín, is being increasingly threatened by salmon farming.

Parliamentarians and local authorities swiftly rebutted his remarks.

“It's preposterous to think of putting the brakes on a growing industry,” said Sen. Antonio Horvath of the National Renovation party (RN), who instead proposed “zoning of the coastal borders of the region, to specify areas destined for ecotourism, research or aquaculture.”

Salmon farming is the Chile's fourth-largest export, with more than US$1.4 billion in sales last year. According to SalmonChile, during the first half of this year alone, the industry generated US$790 million in sales. Approximately 70 percent of salmon farming is located in Region X. The Salmon Producers Association reports that by 2010 the industry will expand south into Region XI, and many anticipate that it will soon be a US$3 billion export industry (ST, August 30).

The general manager of the Salmon Farmers' Association, Rodrigo Infante, also dismissed Tompkins' claims Wednesday, saying that Tompkins “doesn't know the area.”

“Tompkins hasn't studied the water of this zone. For that, you need aquaculture permits, and he doesn't have them,” Infante said. “This man is raising false accusations. There is no information to suggest problems in the fulfillment of any regulations.”

However, Tompkins asserts that his remarks are backed up by a European team, which Tompkins contracted to assess the damage (ST, August 30).

“The team came with up-to-the-minute technology, and they took photographs and samples of the situation,” he said.

The debate comes just days before SalmonChile is set to commend salmon farmers for clean production, according to an agreement on clean practices signed two years ago. Over 40 companies signed the voluntary agreement, which has been kept by 93 percent of cultivation centers and 75 percent of processing plants.

However, Marcel Claude, director of Oceana, says that existing salmon production is deeply problematic.

“Salmon farming has developed with extremely poor controls,” Claude said. “It's clear that the serious degradation in the lakes and canals of Region X has been caused by the salmon industry. (But) Oceana believes that environmental problems cannot be separated from social problems. Those on the receiving end of the contamination in Region X have been the local fishermen and the coastal communities, who have seen their means of subsistence threatened.

“All the social indices of the 13 communities which house salmon farming in Region X are below the national average,” Claude added.

According to environmental groups, while farmed salmon themselves require extremely clean water, the uneaten food, drugs and feces created by salmon farming are highly damaging. Salmon pens are usually constructed within public water systems such as rivers and bays, facilitating untreated waste release and the escape of farmed salmon.

In addition, lobbyists argue that the pens create a concentrated environment which facilitates the spread of disease, such as Infectious Salmon Aenaemia (ISA), which has been reported in Chile. In high-density environments, ISA kills all but two percent of the fish.

In 2000, the European Commission published a study which found that ISA was not a virus transmittable to humans. However, since 1999, the disease has also been found in wild salmon.

Tompkins said Wednesday that the Chilean government should impose density restrictions on the salmon industry, “not only in the number of cages, but also the number of fish per cage, per cubic meter.”

Tompkins also urged the Endesa company's Fundación Huinay, which owns 35,000 hectares alongside Parque Pumalín, to support him.

“I would be very impressed if Endesa and the foundation pressured the government to restrict this industry,” he said. “I'm pleased that the Fundación Huinay is, apparently, taking action against this dirty industry.”

The salmon debate comes less than a month after the controversial death of Juan Miranda, an industry diver working for Marine Harvest in Chile (ST, Sept. 1). Miranda died from a heart attack after returning from a maintenance dive on a fish farming site.

Marine Harvest expressed regret, but emphasized that Miranda had not followed adequate decompression procedures rising from the dive. However, according to Oceana, divers are required to descend to up to 65 meters to clean salmon cages, 45 meters more than their authorization.

Oceana figures state that over half the divers in aquaculture industries are subcontractors without unions. Seven diver fatalities have been recorded thus far in 2005, said Oceana. (Ed. Note: See related feature story in today's Santiago Times.)



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