We could smell it before we could see it and we breathed in deeply, freewheeling our descent towards the coast. It was a proper sea smell, rich and briny with not so subtle undertones of wet sand, sea lion poop and seaweed. We had said goodbye to the Pacific Ocean in Tierra Del Fuego and not expected to see her again in 10,000km of cycling, but the lure of perfect left handers proved too strong and we found ourselves crossing the Andes (again) to worship her waves.
Our wheels rolled along the streets of the small Chilean coastal community of Cobquecura, past colourful old stone houses which had stood at the epicentre of the enormous 2010 earthquake. Yet it wasn’t the occasional creeping cracks that drew our attention, but the black flags etched with a fish skeleton and the slogan NO A LAS SALMONERAS that adorned every edifice in town. Intrigued (and a little thirsty) we ducked into a café proudly displaying a black sticker of the same design. Chatting to Pablo, a softly spoken Cobquecura resident, we found out that the town was once again at the epicentre of an earthquake, but this time not of Mother Nature’s making.
In October 2015 Inversiones Pelícano S.A. filed to install eight aquaculture projects in the water surrounding Cobquecura to raise exotic species such as Atlantic Salmon, Palm ruffs, Mussels and Algaes. There had been no consultation with the town and to add insult to injury the first the community had heard of it had been an article in the newspaper. This kind of fishy business is not new to Chile. The world’s second-largest producer of farmed salmon is infamous for pushing profit over environmental and community well-being. The impacts of such damaging coastal aquaculture practices have been well documented further south in Patagonia and were not something the residents of Cobquecura wanted within a nautical inch of their precious sea lion colony. A citizen movement, Todos Somos Cobquecura (We Are All Cobquecura) sprung up to protect the area’s unique environmental and cultural heritage.
If we wanted to find out more, said Pablo, we should talk to his friend Cristobal Bustos, a key member of Todos Somos, who, within a few short minutes whirled into the café with his adorable son Leon in tow. Cristobal only had a few minutes to spare before heading out-of-town so we hastily arranged a time to catch up later in the week, got the low down on the best surf spots and retrieved our sunglasses from Leon’s cake covered clutches. Pablo offered that we pitch our tent on a plot of land he owned near the sea, the first of many kindnesses we were shown in the ensuing days, and so, on our first night in Cobque’ (as the locals call it) we fell asleep to the braying of boisterous sea lions and the slap of the tide on dark sands.
By the time Saturday rolled around we had passed three blissful bike-free days soaking in what can only be described as the unique and wonderful Cobquecura aura. The gringos on bamboo bikes had become a regular fixture around town with every conversation beginning with a knowing smile and “I thought you said you were leaving yesterday?”. With perfect surf, trees laden with plump papayas, and resident communities of Chilean dolphins, southern sea lions and the worlds friendliest people – it’s hard to leave the place.
Sitting in front of the ocean he works so hard to protect Cristobal explains exactly why the community is so opposed to the farms. Firstly, the salmon raised on Chilean farms are not native to their waters, but to the Atlantic Ocean thousands of kilometres away. “They bring with them infections like the ISA virus and sea lice,” laments Cristobal. Densely packed into mesh pens the high prevalence of disease among the foreign fish is tackled with incredible quantities of antibiotics. In 2016 the Chilean salmon industry used 382.5 tonnes of antibiotics, some 700 times the amount used in Norway.
Perhaps even scarier than mountains of antibiotics are the tonnes of protein waste dumped into the ocean in the form of dead salmon, uneaten food and salmon faeces, which lead to dangerously low oxygen levels in the water. A recent study by AIDA found that more than half of the salmon farms currently operating in the Magallanes region of Southern Patagonia have generated a partial or total lack of oxygen in the water. Nine of those are located in naturally protected areas. Furthermore, many marine biologists believe that there is a direct link between increased ammonia levels in the water and the heightened prevalence of the killer red tide in Chile. These toxic algae wiped out a fifth of Chile’s salmon production in 2016, contributing to a 40-percent rise in world salmon prices, not to mention deadly consequences for wild populations of sea lions, penguins, fish and molluscs.
Salmon is famed for its health benefits, particularly as a great source of Omega-3, however, these fatty acids are not synthesised by the fish themselves but taken up through their natural diet. Wild fish are therefore caught and processed by the bucket load to feed farmed salmon – with over 50 percent of the world’s fish oil used in feed for farmed salmon wild fish stocks are placed under huge pressure. Species such as anchoveta, sardine and jack mackerel are either overexploited or fully exploited.
So is all farmed fish bad?
Not necessarily. Fish are much more efficient at converting feed into protein than livestock such as beef or pork – aquaculture, therefore, offers an ecologically competitive option – it also contributes less to global emissions of nitrogen and phosphorus than pork or beef production. With 3 billion people worldwide relying on seafood as their primary source of animal protein and 50 percent of the world’s seafood produced by aquaculture it seems the fish farm industry will only continue to grow alongside the Earth’s population.
What is the solution?
The Chilean salmon farming industry is a prime example of a poorly regulated and environmentally damaging system – but will it be enough to tighten regulations on farming practices around the world? Suggested positive steps have been to switch to vegetable or insect-based fish feeds thereby reducing the pressure on wild stocks, to limit the use of antibiotics and to move farms away from coastal environments and into deeper waters. All of which are already in motion in various sites around the world.
Another proposed solution is the land-based “recirculating aquaculture system” (RAS). Intended to simulate the salmon’s natural environment, the fish start their life cycle as eggs in aquatic temperature-controlled trays, moving on through a series of smaller adolescent stage tanks, before reaching the “ocean”, a 150,000-litre circular tank. Once grown they are run through a stunner and placed on ice before ending up on your plate. Ninety-nine percent of the water is recycled by large water filtering towers which remove the waste and produce a nitrogen and phosphorus-rich fertiliser for local farms. The idea is a future where you will be able to shop for locally produced salmon from a closed environment. Several of these systems are already up and running such as the Freshwater Institute, in West Virginia or the Kuterra farm near Port McNeill, Canada.
Land-based tanks may seem unnatural to some, but they take us a long way from today’s toxic order of anoxic waters or diesel boats ploughing the oceans forever harder to find fish stocks.
One thing is for sure, capitalism is trumping caretaking in Chile’s current system with devastating consequences. With a coastline blessed with surf and sea lions, members of Todos Somos Cobquecura believe the most logical solution is to keep the salmon farms away and instead promote the area as an ecotourism destination. Yet they remain frustrated by the mixed messages from the government who are considering salmon farms in close proximity to an area they have previously classified as a sea lion breeding sanctuary.
“We are poor in money but very rich in nature. Do you [the government] want us to be a nature tourism place or an industrial place? You have to decide” Cristobal justly posits.
While the proposed farms are still under evaluation by the government, Todos Somos have succeeded in stalling the projects via a combination of peaceful protests, legal interventions and visits to parliament, making the community’s opposition loud and clear.
After three days had turned to six we needed to continue our journey north. Feeling inspired by the spirited Cobque’ campaigners our legs took on a new energy as we pumped our way out-of-town into an unusual northerly headwind and the next daunting series of coastal hills. If one small community of passionate and informed citizens could stand up to the might of Chile’s toxic aquaculture industry to delay and hopefully prevent the creation of new ecological disasters, what couldn’t be achieved by the power of the people? Unfortunately, this newfound bio-fuel powered us only 16km up the road to Pullay, a small pueblo and still part of the Cobquecura community. Coco, who runs a campsite and laid back café in front of the world class left point at Pullay greeted us with a knowing smile and questioning eyebrow that said: “still here?”. “Mañana, Mañana” we chorused with more conviction than we felt, donning wetsuits and paddling out once more for an evening ride.
Pointing the Fish Finger
It’s easy to point the fish finger at fetid farms but what can we as consumers do to ensure that our dinner choices aren’t costing the earth?
1. Download an app
There are lots of great apps out there to help you read between the fishing lines and ultimately enable you to make more sustainable seafood choices quickly and easily. Here’s just a few:
2. Eat fish less frequently
Fish and especially salmon is a brilliantly healthy source of protein and Omega 3 but we are consuming at an unsustainable rate. Consider substituting some fish meals during the week for protein-rich legumes. Sustainably sourced fish can be more expensive so balancing eco-friendly fish with vegetable proteins is also more economical, win-win!
3. Get involved and informed.
This article is part of a series on sustainability in South America by Emily and Sam of Two By Bamboo. Cycling 10,000km from Patagonia to Colombia on worryingly wonky homemade bamboo bikes, their mission is to share the stories of the movers, shakers, recyclers and makers of the continent.
Biologist turned producer Emily worked on a number of documentaries for BBC and Discovery Channel in the UK before moving down under where she joined SBS as an impact producer. By sharing the stories of amazing humans and animals she meets, Emily hopes to inspire herself and others to make more positive choices for our planet. A relative stranger to the saddle she wonders what could go wrong?
Read more at twobybamboo.com