Working towards a more sustainable salmon industry

Rabobank, WWF and salmon producers join forces

Each summer, blue whales, an endangered species, migrate to the coastal areas of Chile. In its fjords and bays they give birth to their calves and gather food. Orcas and dolphins also feel at home in these waters, which are rich in fish, which is something the local population has also benefited from for centuries. But this unique ecosystem is under considerable pressure due to the advent of the salmon farming industry. A unique alliance between WWF Chile and Rabobank and salmon farmers is seeking to change that.

Our world’s population is growing at an enormous rate and therefore so too is the demand for food. Millions of tonnes of fish will accordingly be needed in the next few decades to meet this growing demand. Aquaculture, or fish farming, is intended to cover part of this. The Chilean coast is also ideal for fish farming and around thirty years ago, the first salmon were farmed here for export. Within a short period of time, this grew into an enormous farmed salmon industry.
The country is now the second-largest producer globally – with all the attendant consequences. Excessive use of chemicals and medicines and the outbreak of diseases caused pollution and massive mortality of local fish species. The local fishing industry came under pressure as a result. In 2008, the Chilean salmon industry collapsed when a highly contagious virus decimated huge numbers of farmed salmon. It was during this salmon crisis that Víctor Hugo Puchi Acuña, one of the pioneers of Chile’s farmed salmon industry and chairman of AquaChile, realised that something had to change. “How can we prepare to combat the outbreak of diseases more effectively? And how can we operate in a more responsible manner, to reduce our ecological footprint? We did not come up with any ready-made answers and had to embark on a learning process, which was very important. We want to continue to benefit from our ocean in the long term. That is why we need to think ahead about how we want to treat it.”

Partnership

To that end, the salmon producer sought an alliance with partners that may not have been immediately self-evident: Rabobank, one of the largest financiers of Chile’s farmed salmon industry, and the WWF. The nature conservation organisation is not opposed by definition to aquaculture, but it is if the latter has too much impact on the environment, explains Ricardo Bosshard, director of WWF Chile. “There are clear issues here that we need to tackle. How can we embrace the salmon industry so that it matches the WWF mission in which we work towards a world in which humans live in harmony with nature? Can we make sure that salmon farming does not destroy this natural environment, a key calving ground for whales and dolphins? If we were to achieve this, we had to talk to the bank and producers.”

In April 2012, Rabobank and WWF Chile entered into an alliance with several salmon producers to demonstrate that conserving natural resources, protecting ecosystems and cooperating with the local population can go hand in hand with economic returns. In a white paper, they formulated their agreement on the spearheads for making the farmed salmon industry more sustainable, ranging from biodiversity, social problems to risk evaluations for sustainable business operations.

Backed by financial help from the bank and the businesses, WWF Chile initiated a range of studies to map the principal threats to marine life, such as whales and dolphins. The nature conservation organisation also looks at where the most valuable natural areas are and to what extent healthy salmon farming depends on protecting them.
The input for those studies is used to provide information to the local population and businesses. “We delivered the tools with which producers could show the impact of their operations,” Bosshard explains.
This input was also used by the parties concerned to draw up a manual that helps the staff of the salmon farms to more effectively reduce their adverse effects on dolphins and whales. Rabobank and WWF Chile also jointly organise training sessions to inform salmon farmers of the added value of a healthy natural environment for their business and how they can help to contribute to it themselves. Together with the salmon farming businesses, Rabobank is looking at financing for the additional costs entailed by making their businesses more sustainable. The range of initiatives launched since 2012 has led to the Clean Production Agreement, an agreement to protect blue whales, being signed in 2015 by six salmon farming businesses, the Chilean government, a university, a research organisation and WWF Chile.

Social problems

Relationships with local communities are one of the greatest challenges in increasing sustainability. Even though the salmon farmers bring employment opportunities, education and healthcare to the remote areas of South Chile, where most salmon farms are located, relationships with the local population are troubled. They mainly experience adverse effects from the salmon farms, such as the pollution and the impact on fish stocks. Last year, when massive fish mortality occurred after an outbreak of poisonous algae off the coast, the fishermen immediately pointed to the salmon farms as the guilty party.
“It is very important for us to improve interactions with the communities,” says Puchi Acuña. “Dialogue with the local population is accordingly a key element of this partnership.” The partners talk to the local communities to explain to them what the growth of the salmon farming industry means to them and how any negative consequences can be combated. “We need to discover more about their needs and incorporate them in the sustainability drive,” Puchi Acuña explains. “At the same time, we want to show them that protecting the ocean and the coast will also benefit their own lives. We can only achieve improvements if we join forces. This is advancing step by step. I feel that their attitudes are changing gradually. We appreciate the commitment of the WWF and Rabobank in helping to achieve this.”

ASC certification

The partnership also promotes the transition to the ASC, the certification for responsibly farmed fish. Agreement has been reached within the sector that by 2020 the entire Chilean farmed salmon supply chain must have switched to responsible farming in accordance with the criteria of this certification. Today, 13 percent of Chilean salmon production is already ASC-certified. For Brenda de Swart, sustainability manager at Rabobank Chile, this represents a huge achievement. “Whereas Chile’s forestry sector took 20 years to achieve FSC certification, the salmon farming industry has already reached 13 percent ASC certification within two years. Very large numbers of businesses are working seriously on this at present and we can therefore expect that percentage to have increased substantially by the end of this year.”
AquaChile has also been committed for a long time to achieving certification of its salmon farms and the entire supply chain around them. Puchi Acuña: “It is a process that takes place in steps. It concerns not just the environment, but social impact and for instance the correct use of medicines, such as antibiotics, as well.” He designates this as one of the greatest challenges in this connection. “We need medicines for the quality of the fish we export. We have already achieved a great deal of progress in this respect, and use only the medicines that are allowed. This continues to be work in progress for us.”

The partnership can certainly be called successful, WWF Chile director Bosshard claims. “We all had to abandon our normal ways of working, step out of our comfort zone, and join forces to make a real difference to people’s lives. And we have genuinely managed to move forward in this connection. I firmly believe that we have achieved something special here with each other. But this is only one step on a long way that lies ahead. Salmon farming continues to have a significant impact on the environment nearby, and so this is something we will have to keep working on all the time.”