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November 17, 2010

Going Straight to the Salmon Source

Editor’s Note: Oceana online editor Emily Fisher is reporting from Chilean Patagonia this week, a beautiful place under threat from polluting salmon aquaculture. She’ll be sending updates throughout the week. See more photos on our Flickr page.

I’ve known about the negative impacts of salmon farming in Chile for years, but this morning I finally got a glimpse of the source.

A Puerto Natales local named Fernando, with extensive knowledge of the area’s waters, was kind enough to take me out in his boat. The morning was overcast and chilly, but according to Fernando, it was a great day to go out on the water due to the calm winds, which he said was the biggest problem for excursion operators like him this time of year.

Donning ridiculous orange jumpsuits to protect us from the elements, we hopped in his boat. Within three minutes – no exaggeration – he quieted the motor, pointing to a pod of southern dolphins.  There were at least eight dolphins zooming around our boat, taunting me to capture them with my inadequate camera. When they finally got sick of us, we motored over, a few hundred meters away, to see a non-functioning salmon farm. Its orange buoys bobbed serenely as we sped off, spotting even more dolphins.

Next it was time to see the real thing – a farm with live fish. On the way to the second farm Fernando stopped the boat a number of times to see birds: a pair of Magellanic penguins, black-necked swans, cormorants and several species of ducks.

A cold and drizzly boat ride later, the second farm came into view: Caleta Délano, whose drab structures and buoys contrasted with magnificent snow-covered peaks. This was the first salmon farm in the Patagonian region of Magallanes to detect the ISA virus in 2008. While this farm’s salmon are virus-free for now, the recent discovery of the deadly salmon flu in the region has set the industry on edge. One worker was walking around the dock, and we also saw boats that belonged to divers who were cleaning the seafloor beneath the farm, which had become contaminated with salmon feces and uneaten feed.

From where we sat, Caleta Délano gave off no harsh odor, no noise pollution, and the salmon themselves were obviously hidden from view underwater. The whole operation was remarkably tranquil, in fact. But beneath its benign appearance lay a whole slew of environmental impacts: nutrient and chemical pollution, salmon escapes and overuse of antibiotics, to name a few.

Tomorrow I’m heading into the dramatically named Seno Ultima Esperanza (“Last Hope Sound”), where many salmon farms have requested permits for operation, and where tourists pay a pretty penny to visit.