Chile is the world’s second-largest producer of farmed salmon, and the largest exporter to the United States. In the past few decades, the industry has completely altered the landscape and economy of Chilean Patagonia.
The salmon farming industry presents itself as a sustainable solution to feeding humanity in a warming world. Many food and poverty experts agree that aquaculture, which includes seaweed, shellfish, and fish farming, can help alleviate global hunger. But intensive aquaculture can also contribute to environmental degradation through plastic, nutrient, and chemical pollution.
Salmon farms are present throughout southern Chile's remote fjords and coastal areas, stealing habitat from marine animals. Chemicals and nutrients in the form of feces, uneaten food, and dead fish accumulate in narrow waterways. The amount of nitrogen released by Chilean salmon farms every day is comparable to the waste of 9 million people. These nutrients can fuel algal blooms that cause mass die-offs of marine animals—from cold-water corals to sei whales. Climate change and El Niño conditions make these events more likely.
In February, I joined Centinela Patagonia, a new environmental group dedicated to protecting Chilean Patagonia, on a 9-day expedition to survey the impacts of salmon farming in the Los Lagos region. I interviewed fishermen, seaweed gatherers, and scientists who have witnessed these changes firsthand, and worry that the extent of the damage is still not fully known. As Greenpeace’s Estefania Gonzalez explained, “A lot of the impacts are not visible until you are in a state of big crisis.”