photo “Seno de Reloncaví” by Nicolás Binder.
15 March 2016. Santiago, Chile.
According to La Tercera, an increase in the amount seaweed caused the death of 1.5 million salmon in Reloncaví Sound in Chile, or “District 2,” as it is known by the salmon industry. The news, which came from Camanchaca, a Chilean organization dedicated to sustainable salmon farming, was based on data given by Chile’s Supervision of Security and Insurance (SSI). The SSI works to keep the public informed about the markets it oversees.
At first, the incident seemed isolated, but that changed quickly. On the 29th of February—four days after the report of the initial 1.5 million deaths—the organizations Blumar, AquaChile, and Australis Seafood said that their locations in District 2 were also being affected. The next day, Marine Harvest released the same announcement.
The seaweed causing this widespread outbreak of deaths is known as Chattonella Raphidophyceae, writes Cecila Yañez in a follow-up article for La Tercera:
The presence of the seaweed decreases the concentration of oxygen in the water, damaging the fishes’ gills and thus killing them. Though this outcropping of seaweed occurs every year, it is usually not to the same extent. This is in part due to the high water temperatures caused by El Niño, which has been especially strong this year, and in part due to the high amount of sunlight, which aids in the plant’s photosynthesis process.
Currently, the amount of dead fish exceeds 13 million, which is equivalent to 26 thousand tons of salmon. The industry believes that the effect on production could rise even further—up to 90 thousand tons. Of the 22 organizations in District 2, twenty reported that the phenomenon was influencing them, and the damage even extends to Districts 3 (in Calbuco) and 7 (south of Chiloé Island).
The crisis could become even bigger than the outbreak of the Infectious Salmon Anemia Virus (ISAV) in 2007, which resulted in losses of $600 million US dollars, and around 16 thousand employees. The virus even left many businesses in the industry on the verge of collapse. One source from the industry told La Tercera that District 2 has around 20 million fish and it wouldn’t surprise him if most of them were lost.
So what effect will this have for Chile’s salmon industry?
Chile is the second largest producer of salmon in the world, surpassed only by Norway. Yet last year most of the Atlantic salmon, which is Chile’s biggest export, was sent out at low prices. The low prices are reflected mainly in the US market, where the average cost of Atlantic salmon was $3.70 per pound, while in 2014 it averaged $4.60 per pound.
The change in price was brought about by the currency depreciation in two main markets (Russia and Brazil), as well as by a high production.
However, the deaths caused by the seaweed could actually cause the price of Chilean salmon to rise again. Another source from the salmon industry noted that people were asking for a reduction in volume of salmon from Chile, and Mother Nature might just have provided that reduction.
All of its effects aren’t so positive, though. The low prices of salmon had led the industry to anticipate a loss of more than 2,000 jobs, but, given this crisis, that number could rise even further.
Outside the salmon industry, some scientists are skeptical of the explanations that the industry attributes to the growth of the seaweed. Hector Kol, biologist for a Chilean organization devoted to the preservation of Pumalin Park, thinks that the salmon are dying because the industry puts an exorbitant amount of chemicals into the sea. He explained to La Tercera that the industry put insecticides in the water to protect the fish against an outbreak of caligus, or sea lice. But, said Kol, the sea lice are a natural means of controlling micro-algae, so the industry disrupted the biological equilibrium by dumping pesticides in the water.
Two scientists from Chile’s University of the Lakes, Sandra Ríos and Alejandro Buschmann, have a slightly different idea of what is causing the mortality of the salmon. They believe that the cultivation of salmon impacts biodiversity. Buschmann described how the cultivation of salmon generates carbon and phosphorus that joins with the nitrogen in the water. This, in turn, leads to a loss of oxygen in the water that can cause environmental problems, such as the growth of unwanted seaweed.
Regardless of the cause, both the scientists and the salmon industry are waiting to hear what the final impact of the event will be.
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