Leticia Caro stands on a bluff in Kawésqar National Park in Patagonia

Leticia Caro, who been a leader in efforts to protect Kawésqar territory from the environmental impacts of the salmon farming industry, stands on a bluff in Kawésqar National Park in Southern Patagonia. Credit: Tomás Munita

Exploring the Underbelly of Chile’s Salmon Farming Industry

Members of the Kawésqar people recently discussed their efforts to protect a marine reserve in Chile's Patagonia at a special screening of a National Geographic documentary produced by McCluskey Fellow in Conservation Alex Muñoz. 

Untouched mountain ranges, forests, glaciers, valleys, and wetlands form the rugged landscape of Kawésqar National Park — the second largest national park in Chile with an area of 7,023,542 acres. A complementary marine protected area, Kawésqar National Reserve, covers roughly 6.5 million acres of ocean, fjords, and channels, hosting an equal amount of biodiversity beneath sea, providing a superb habitat for fish, marine mammals, and hundreds of marine species. The reserve also contains one of the healthiest, most intact kelp forests in the world, ecosystems considered critical to combating climate change due to their ability to absorb high levels of carbon dioxide. 

In Chile, a national park has the highest level of protection, unlike a national reserve, which allows certain extractive activities and industries. In recent years, the pristine waters of the Kawésqar reserve have attracted the salmon farming industry — about 68 concessions have been granted in the reserve and another 57 permits are in process, according to the National Geographic Pristine Seas Project. 

Members of the Yale community had the opportunity to learn more about the Kawésqar people’s efforts to defend their homeland against the impacts of salmon farming in Chile’s Patagonia during a screening of National Geographic’s documentary “Canoeros: Memoria Viva" (Canoeists: Living Memory) at Burke Auditorium in Kroon Hall at the Yale School of the Environment on April 16. Two of the Kawésqar leaders featured in the film, Letitia Caro and Eric Huaiquil, traveled from Chile to join Alex Muñoz, the film’s producer and the current McCluskey Fellow in Conservation, for a panel discussion moderated by Professor of Environmental Justice Gerald Torres after the screening. The event was hosted by the Latin America Student Interest Group (SIG) in collaboration with several other SIGs and Yale centers that helped organize the event. 

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“I’ve been working to protect the ocean in Chile for a long time, particularly the Patagonia region, which is being threatened by the salmon farming industry,” said Muñoz, who was formerly the senior director for Latin America of National Geographic’s Pristine Seas project. “It’s very important to work with the Indigenous peoples and local communities who have been the real guardians of the ocean in the most fragile areas of the planet.” 

A good portion of the film documents a three-week National Geographic expedition to explore pristine areas deep into the reserve in partnership with members of the Kawésqar and Yagán peoples. The expedition team combined real-time scientific field research with the traditional knowledge of the Kawésqar to confirm many of the region’s unique ecosystem characteristics and corroborate “the importance of the land-sea connection in structuring the marine communities of this region.”

“I felt both nervous and fascinated,” Caro said when asked her thoughts about embarking on the expedition. “The ocean was deep there. I had planned on traveling there many times but was never able to make it before. You can see why it was heavily travelled area by (ancient Kawésqar) because there’s a lot of food there.”

Left to right: Professor Gerald Torres, Leticia Caro, Eric Huaiquil, and Alex Muñoz answer audience questions after a screening of the documentary "Canoeros: Memoria Viva" in Burke Auditorium on April 16.

In one scene shortly after the expedition departs from Punta Arenas, Caro shows Muñoz and several National Geographic scientists a very old Kawésqar sailing chart that her father still uses to fish. The chart, she explains, shows each of the spaces her people have traveled — each of the beaches, rock bluffs, and fisheries, and what exists, and has existed, on them.

Expert navigators and canoeists, the Kawésqar traveled the Patagonian coasts searching places to hunt sea lions and fish for food.

“The Kawésqar would not have been able to live without the ocean. Their main food source is there,” Caro said, noting that her father, a fisherman, who has fished in the waters in and around the reserve all his life has noticed a marked decline in his (wild) catch since the salmon farms’ arrival. 

The salmon farming industry has grown dramatically in Chile in recent decades. Farmed salmon is the country's second-largest export sector after copper mining, generating a total revenue of $6.5 billion in 2023, according to the Central Bank of Chile. 

How much the industry benefits local communities and how many jobs it generates is far from clear, Muñoz says.

“The salmon industry in Chile is covered by a blanket of opacity. We don’t know exactly how many people they employ, and their associations often inflate the number of workers they have” he said.  

Some salmon farming companies, he adds, have offered economic contributions to Indigenous communities in exchange for support. “That’s the way they get some social license to continue, operating even though they’re hurting the environment and some communities that live from it,” Muñoz noted.

What we have is conviction. We are doing this because we have to, regardless of the outcome.  We’re in search of justice, not necessarily because we hope for a positive outcome.”

Eric Huaiquil Member of the Kawésqar People

The environmental impacts that have raised concern include the Chilean salmon farming industry’s extensive use of antibiotics and chemical pesticides (Over two-thirds of Chilean farmed salmon is rated red by the nonprofit Seafood Watch due to the high use of antibiotics.); the practice of covering the seafloor (underneath the farms) with organic matter causing eutrophication; large-scale escapes of farmed salmon that have a significant impact on native fauna; and trails of  plastic trash and debris in the pristine Patagonian landscapes. All of these harm local ecosystems and threaten sustainable Indigenous fishing, Muñoz notes.  

“Salmon is not native to Chile,” Muñoz said. “That’s one important this to remember. So, when you introduce them (through escape or accident) into the ecosystem, they act as predators that threaten native species.” 

Farming infrastructure along the coasts steals habitat from marine mammals, including different species of whales and dolphins, and as shown in the film some salmon farm workers have been documented killing sea lions that eat food from the salmon pens. 

Caro and Huaiquil say their petitions for greater protections for the reserve have been ignored by the current government of Chile. But when asked if they have hope for the future or if things will one day change, perhaps with a change of government, they say it isn’t really a question of hope.

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“Hope as such, it doesn’t exist,” Huaiquil said. “I don’t say this in a negative way. What we have is conviction. We are doing this because we have to, regardless of the outcome.  We’re in search of justice, not necessarily because we hope for a positive outcome.”

When asked if they’ve found any unlikely allies in their fight to protect their homeland from the salmon farming industry, Caro replies “all of them.”

“We didn’t expect anyone to join with us” Caro said. “So, any help we’ve received from National Geographic, from Greenpeace, from any group has been totally unexpected.”

Natalia Espinosa Caballero ’25 MEM, a member of the Latin America SIG, emphasized the importance of the panel discussion and of hearing from Caro and Huaiquil directly about their efforts to protect their ancestral homeland.  “We worked hard to bring leaders from the Indigenous Kawésqar community to New Haven, opening up a space where they could share their invaluable experiences in the historical fight to preserve their culture, traditions, territory, and ecosystems,” she said.

Muñoz, himself, says he is hopeful that there will be a positive outcome.  “We have done a thorough job of putting together the science, working with the Indigenous peoples, and I am hopeful that one day this place, which is completely unique and irreplaceable, will be recognized for the treasure it is, and watched over by its true caretakers.”

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