National Geographic calls for halt to salmon farming in key Chilean region

The Kawésqar national reserve in Chile.

A new National Geographic documentary is advocating for the protection of a large portion of Chile's coastline from further commercial salmon-farming development.

The documentary, titled “Canoeros: Memoria Viva” (Canoeists: Living Memory), and its creators are calling for Chile's Kawésqar National Reserve to be classified as a national park, effectively halting farming in the region.

The Kawésqar National Park extends over 2.8 million hectares, making it the second-largest park in Chile. However, the coastal areas in the park are considered a national reserve, a category that has less protection than a park. The reserve is home to 67 salmon-farming concessions, with an additional 80 concession requests currently pending, National Geographic reported.

National Geographic premiered the documentary on Friday, 27 May, in southern Chile’s Patagonian region of Magallanes. The screening took place in the José Bohr Municipal Theater in the city of Punta Arenas – the hometown of Chile’s President Gabriel Boric and a region where the salmon-farming  industry has been expanding its reach. The documentary was produced by National Geographic’s global program Pristine Seas, which has the stated mission of combining exploration, research, policy and economic work, strategic communications, education, and community engagement with the goal of helping to create marine reserves and ensuring their effective management.

The Pristine Seas expedition filmed the documentary in partnership with members of the Kawésqar and Yagán indigenous groups. The Kawésqar community, with aid from local activist groups and the support of NGOs including AIDA, Greenpeace, and FIMA, is in the midst of a campaign to protect the marine ecosystems of the Magallanes located in indigenous ancestral territories. The groups are looking to avoid potential environmental damage that could be caused by industrial salmon-farming activities.

National Geographic Pristine Seas director for Latin America Alex Muñoz, in a release, said the reserve is “a place with extraordinary and unique ecosystems” that is already being impacted by salmon farms.

“I hope that the new government issues a ban on this harmful activity inside this protected area of enormous ecological and cultural value,” he said.

Chilean President Boric, who was elected in December 2021 and who took office in March 2022, has questioned the environmental sustainability of the country’s USD 5.2 billion (EUR 4.6 billion) salmon-farming industry. He is now 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 said. "That's as simple as … enforcing the law.”

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.

The report published by Pristine Seas says that scientific findings strongly support the traditional knowledge of the Kawésqar peoples. National Geographic’s list of “the most-serious impacts of salmon farming documented in Patagonia” include mass escapes of “invasive and carnivorous” salmon, high use of antibiotics and anti-parasite drugs, the destruction of the sea bed from salmon and feed waste, and the loss of marine species such as whales, dolphins, and sea lions inside salmon farms.

The film launch comes just weeks after a report by Chile’s National Fisheries and Aquaculture Service (Sernapesca) which found that in 2021 the country’s salmon farmers increased their use of antimicrobials to levels not seen since 2017. A Global Salmon Initiative report corroborated the assessment, with six of eight Chilean salmon farmers that are members of the initiative reporting higher antibiotic use in 2021.

“Due to the serious threat posed by the advance of salmon farming in our territory, it is necessary for the Kawésqar reserve to be reclassified as a national park. It is the only way to effectively protect both nature and the living culture that is contained in this territory that is part of the Kawésqar Wæs,” Kawésqar Communities for the Defense of the Sea representative Leticia Caro said.

However, the removal or rescinding of salmon-farming concessions in protected areas would have significant impacts on the industry. Doing so would affect around 50 percent of the industry’s production and put the more than 6,400 direct and indirect jobs that the industry generates in the region at risk, the Association of Salmon Farmers of Magallanes said.

Chile’s largest salmon trade association, SalmonChile, declined to comment on the release of the film when contacted by SeafoodSource.

National Geographic's Muñoz said the documentary was exhaustively researched.

“Pristine Seas has consulted official sources, particularly the Chilean national fisheries service, in regard to information about the practices and impacts of the salmon-aquaculture industry. These official sources contain information provided directly by the salmon-farming companies and public officials that monitor and enforce the law applicable to this industry,” Muñoz told SeafoodSource. “Pristine Seas has also published the results of the studies conducted in the Kawésqar National Reserve in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Finally, we have an extensive bibliography composed of numerous studies about both the salmon-farming industry and the biodiversity in the Kawésqar National Reserve.”

Muñoz said following his research and the filming of the documentary, he is convinced the Kawésqar National Reserve must be fully protected from salmon farming.

“The Kawésqar National Reserve is a top priority area for conservation due to its high degree of endemism, pristine fjords, glaciers, temperate rainforests, ocean habitats, and the largest ice field outside of the polar regions. Its main short-term threats are salmon farming and climate change,” the Pristine Seas expedition found, based on its scientific studies.

The complete feature film will be released on the National Geographic Channel in select markets.

Chile has not been the sole focus of National Geographic’s Pristine Seas marine conservation initiative. In March, it kicked off a scientific expedition to study Colombian seas to support the government’s plan to create new marine protected areas that will cover a total 30 percent of Colombia’s exclusive economic zone. It will also produce a documentary to showcase the diversity of Colombia’s marine ecosystems.

Pristine Seas claims to have helped inspire the creation of 26 marine reserves worldwide, covering an area totaling more than 6.5 million square kilometers.  

Photo courtesy of Alejandra Javiera Gallo/Wikimedia


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