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Chile’s salmon industry poised to take a leap forward

By Fran Molloy

December 5, 2016

view of bay with acqualture farming pens
Chile is the second-largest producer of Atlantic salmon in the world – after Norway. Image: Flickr/Horacio Lyon.

Furious Chilean locals blockaded the island of Chiloe earlier this year, cutting supplies of food and fuel in protest against salmon farmers whom they blamed for a huge ‘red tide’ of a poisonous algal bloom that spread for nearly 2000 kilometres along the Patagonia coastline and closed down the local fishing industry for weeks.

Despite authorities declaring that this year’s deadly algal bloom was due to high ocean temperatures linked to El Niño, the protest showed that the salmon industry’s ‘social licence’ to operate was in question.

The protests followed the authorised dumping at sea of thousands of tonnes of dead salmon, part of local production losses estimated at US $800 million.

The Chilean salmon industry has suffered a series of hits over the past decade, from a 2007 viral outbreak that cut salmon production by 75% and slashed about 20,000 jobs, to a drop in demand for Chilean salmon last year when some US retailers reduced orders following reports of high levels of antibiotics used in farms, to treat the salmon-harming SRS bacteria.

The industry was already under a cloud for chemical use and for habitat degradation, and the latest developments have significantly eroded local trust in the salmon industry.

Setting triple-bottom-line production targets

After Norway, Chile is the second-largest producer of Atlantic salmon in the world, and farmed salmon—first introduced in 1979—now makes up around 90% of Chile’s US $3.5 billion aquaculture industry.

With the reputation of the salmon industry jeopardised by recent events, the Chilean Government’s fisheries service, SERNAPESCA, has chosen to work with CSIRO on a project to help rebuild the industry and boost the country’s aquaculture sector.

The SIMA-Austral project started this year and, after talking with people in local industry, government and communities, the project leaders have concluded that the industry must set ‘triple bottom line’ production targets that limit the economic, environmental and social impacts.

fish pens
Farmed salmon was introduced in Chile in 1979. It’s now the second-largest producer of Atlantic salmon in the world.

Dr Patricio Bernal heads CSIRO’s Coastal and Marine Research Program in Chile. He says that the project, which runs until 2019, has already developed some early working numerical models of the hydrodynamics and is delivering useful information such as real-time monitoring of the weather, the ocean currents and the marine ecosystems in Los Lagos in Chilean Patagonia, an important salmon-farming region.

“We’re developing some very effective and automatic ways of communicating many pieces of information in real time,” explains Dr Bernal.

“We will take sanitary information from all the production centres, and add environmental and water quality information, and model the hydrodynamics of the locations.”

CSIRO researchers will overlay this data with a bio-geochemical model that lets users follow changes in nutrient concentrations that can be precursors of an algal bloom.

Before returning to his Chilean birthplace, Dr Bernal spent nearly 12 years at the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO in Paris, leading the development of the Global Ocean Observing System, which has distributed thousands of oscillating floats that gather information from the surface down to a depth of 2000 metres. These floats provide just a small part of the data informing models to assess Chile’s salmon industry, he says.

“Our big challenges are that, in certain areas, we don’t yet have the quality or consistency of the data we need,” he says. The tides can be very high in this region, and the coastline is complex, which significantly affects the water circulation, he adds.

Explaining the ‘salmon world’ with mathematics

Even more ground-breaking, the models being integrated include global market and other economic information, as well as social indicators, which could help Chile avoid situations like the serious unrest around recent crises in Chiloe.

Dr Beth Fulton, who is based in Hobart, heads up CSIRO’s socio-ecological modelling for the Chile project.

“We build on the back of the hydrodynamic and other modelling to piece together some different parts of the salmon world,” she says.

“We look at things like the impacts of the water quality, how the producers grow their salmon and share their information, how they send things to market, what the effect is on the ecosystem around them, and what the effect is on the local community.”

Dr Fulton admits many people find it mind-blowing to imagine bringing such social, qualitative data into a mathematical model. But, she says, maths can explain the world to an extraordinary depth, if you can just get the right equation.

“The magic of our hybrid approach is that we can use different methods for all these different events. We can talk to someone and then count the number of times they use a word, or we can measure how they respond to a survey,” she explains.

Using ‘signed diagraphs,’ which are diagrams describing relationships and interactions between different parts of a community or ecosystem, and showing positive or negative effects or ‘links,’ CSIRO scientists can apply a mathematical model to people’s world concepts.

“It’s truly interdisciplinary and can even tease apart social structures and social connections,” says Dr Fulton.

Stepping into another’s shoes

Can a model like this predict social unrest, such as that in Chilean Patagonia earlier this year?

“It can certainly highlight where tensions will arise, and it can also highlight how you might defuse or avoid them,” says Dr Fulton.

Disagreements begin when people fail to see alternate perspectives, she adds.

“Using models, you can get people to play the world from a different perspective, to walk in each other’s shoes.

“The local mussel diver can be the fisheries manager or the tour operator for a while. They suddenly realise the other person has a whole different set of problems that they never appreciated.”

It’s a bit like The Sims (a video game where you run a virtual world) but built on science, she says.

Modelling helps the regulator to step back from being reactive and to think about the broader picture that may be limiting them more than, say, the disease risk they are immediately responding to, she says.

In some workshops facilitated by CSIRO’s project teams in Chile, it was the first time that oyster farmers and salmon farmers had been in the same room, despite working just a few hundred metres apart.

CSIRO Chile is using a customised version of CSIRO’s marine ecosystem modelling approaches, now used in 35 countries around the world, and originally developed for fisheries but now expanded for biophysical, economic and social uses.

The final system produced by the SIMA-Austral project will include live alerts for critical risks, as well as models that can aid long-term planning.

Seafood is an important component of the world’s food, key to the diet of millions of people, so solving problems in the coastal zone is becoming critical.

“We have to do a better job of getting industries and people to fit together without overloading the coasts and oceans,” says Dr Fulton.

Being prepared could avert a crisis

Beth Fulton says that, while models may not have been enough to avoid some parts of Chile’s recent salmon crises, some of the social impacts could perhaps have been averted.

“Thousands of tonnes of salmon were lost to an El Niño event that penetrated further south than had been experienced before in Chile. So people who were unused to seeing that climatic event blamed the thing they were most used to blaming, which is the local salmon industry,” she says.

“Because it has such knock-on effects, by preparing for how people will respond you could increase information, you could be aware that your supply chains may be delayed—there are steps you can take.”

Modelling can also prevent other events through effective planning.

“For an outbreak event, we can identify where the spread is most likely to go, what vectors might be used to shut it down, or at the early planning stage, before such an event, how you can set limits to the number of fish in one area and avoid the risk of outbreaks in the first place.”

With the introduction of high-end monitoring and modelling, the future for Chile’s salmon farms is now looking bright.

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