Chile environment watchdog threatens millions in fines for overproducing salmon farmers

Published on
June 9, 2022
Chile's Superintendencia del Medio Ambiente (Superintendency of the Environment) inspectors at a Cermaq facility.

Chile’s Superintendency of the Environment (SMA) is bringing charges against salmon farmers claiming they overproduced at production centers located within the Kawésqar National Reserve in the southern region of Magallanes.

If found guilty, the farmers risk revocation of their environmental permit, closure of operations, or fines of an amount equivalent to up to CLP 3.3 billion (USD 4 million, EUR 3.73 million).

The alleged infractions took place in a sensitive area, as developments at the Kawésqar National Reserve have been at the center of attention. Last month, National Geographic released a documentary advocating for the protection of the reserve's coastline from further commercial salmon-farming development. The creators of the film, entitled “Canoeros: Memoria Viva” (Canoeists: Living Memory), called for the reserve to be classified as a national park, effectively halting salmon farming in the area. Since the reserve is considered a protected wild area, the infractions against the environmental permit are considered serious.

The SMA’s most recent charge was against Cermaq Chile, which it said overproduced more than 782 metric tons (MT) per year between May 2017 and June 2019 at the Estero Navarro salmonid grow-out center, located in the reserve. The corresponding environmental permit authorizes a maximum production of 5,236 MT at the center – which covers an area of 12 hectares.

"The complaints that the SMA receives are not only from citizens, but also from public services with environmental authority. In this case, [Chile’s National Fisheries and Aquaculture Service] Sernapesca Magallanes sent us information regarding the 2017-2019 production cycle,” Acting SMA Head Emanuel Ibarra said in a statement. “The problem with these situations is that they were verified in areas that are under special protection, such as the case of the Kawésqar National Reserve.”

Cermaq will now have 10 working days to present a compliance program and 15 working days to formulate any disclaimers. The company did not respond to SeafoodSource’s request for further information, but in a public statement, Cermaq Chile said that it is carrying out an investigation and internally validating the published data “to proceed as appropriate, in accordance with the applicable regulations … At the moment we became aware of this case, we began the review of the situation, to act in accordance with the regulations and make ourselves available to authorities.”

Further, last month SMA initiated a sanctioning process against salmon farmer Australis Mar for overproduction at the Morgan salmonid grow-out center, also located in the Kawésqar National Reserve.

“This salmon center has been inspected on-site by the SMA, the Maritime Authority of Punta Arenas and Sernapesca, and the latter filed a complaint with the Superintendence for exceeding the environmentally authorized production of salmon, during the production cycle between July 2017 and March 2019,” Ibarra said. “This company already has five sanctioning procedures. In one of them, last year, overproduction was also determined at the Córdova 3 [grow-out center], located in the same geographical area.”

Two new charges have been filed against the company. The first, which is considered a serious offense and carries the same possible fine of up to CLP 3.3 billion (USD 4 million, EUR 3.73 million), has to do with the overproduction of 1,491 MT of salmon during the aforementioned period. The second - considered a lesser offense which carries a maximum possible fine of CLP 666 million (USD 806,000, EUR 754,000) – is related to omitting reports through the Environmental Monitoring System having to do with effluents coming from the water treatment plant in 2018 and 2019, as well as the analyses of silage material hazardousness from July 2017 through March 2019.

Australis recognized its fault, and in addition admitted that it had also overproduced during the 2019-2021 cycle. In response, it said it would lower production by a total of 1,816 MT in its next production cycles. The company said that the cut in future cycles, together with other actions of its proposed compliance program, will represent a cost of CLP 2.99 billion (USD 3.62 million, EUR 3.38 million).

The SMA's response to Australis's proposal is pending. Officials from the company were not immediately available for comment when contacted by SeafoodSource.

The case has garnered public attention, and featured on national television the night of 6 June.

“The [salmon] industry generates undeniable affects in terms of jobs and investment, but it also worries the [Magallanes] community due to the consequences of poor practices that have been seen in other regions throughout the country … overproduction is one of the breaches that most affects the marine ecosystem,” a commentator on Chile’s Tele13 said.

Legal Manager at Australis Rubén Henríquez said during a television interview that the center in question is no longer operating, and that the company has accepted it as an error it doesn’t want to repeat.

“Despite the fact that this happened more than three years ago at a center that is no longer in operation, and according to the charges did not affect the marine environment, it does not represent our commitment to collaborate with authorities to reach higher levels of compliance and transparency in our operation,” Henríquez said.

The Tele13 report also questioned Australis’s USD 70 million (EUR 65 million) salmonid processing plant being built in Puerto Natales, in Chile’s Magallanes region. Plans for the plant – designed to process 72,000 MT of salmon per year and employ 400 people – include the building of 16 structures on 7 hectares of land, a kilometer due south of the town of Puerto Natales, which has a population of 20,000.

Some residents have expressed fears about the new plant, saying they could be affected by noise pollution, odors, and industrial waste created by the plant’s operations. Further, Puerto Natales citizens organizations, such as Ultima Esperanza, have called into question the transparency and integrity of the environmental approval process.

“This plant was built as a world-class facility that has cutting-edge technology, which makes it the most modern plant in the country,” Australis Corporate Affairs Manager Josefina Moreno said on Tele13, highlighting the creation of jobs that will come with the project.

Salmon farmers, looking to avoid problems such as sea lice and algae blooms are increasingly turning their focus away from the Los Lagos and Aysén regions and towards Magallanes, where the pristine and cold-water conditions are expected to help them combat those issues. However, National Geographic and environmental groups are not the only ones questioning the sustainability of the country’s USD 5.2 billion (EUR 4.6 billion) salmon-farming industry. Chile’s Magallanes-born President Gabriel Boric, who was elected in December 2021 and who took office in March 2022, is reportedly considering a moratorium on the farmed salmon sector that would halt its expansion in the country.

“There can be no salmon-farming industry in marine protected areas,” he has said previously. “That's as simple as … enforcing the law.”

Chile will look to replace its existing fishing laws while also strengthening environmental stewardship in the ocean, he said in his first address to the nation on 1 June 2022.  

Photo courtesy of Chile's Superintendencia del Medio Ambiente

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