Menu Close

Investigation reveals destructive fishing and aquaculture industry operations against marine mammals

June 17, 2024.– The Ecoceanos Centre carried out an investigation that shows serious weaknesses of the national fisheries and aquaculture institutions to comply with the requirements that will imply the implementation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of the United States (MMPA), which will apply from 2026 to Chilean fishery products exported to the U.S. market.

According to the study conducted by attorney Claudia Arancibia, there is a preference on the part of state agencies to protect the interests of the fishing and aquaculture sector in detriment to the precautionary principle, which governs environmental, fishing and aquaculture legislation, and national and international legislation that protects marine mammal populations in Chilean waters.

The results of the research are relevant to know the status of effective implementation of measures for the protection and conservation of marine mammal populations, considering that compliance with this legislation will be a key aspect for the future of Chile’s export economy, since the United States is the leading destination market for Chilean fishery exports.

Ecoceanos’ investigation was carried out on the basis of requests for information from different public bodies with competence in the matter – such as the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Service (Sernapesca), the Undersecretariat of Fisheries and Aquaculture (Subpesca), the National Forestry Corporation (Conaf), the General Directorate of Maritime Territory and Merchant Marine (Directemar), the Environmental Crimes Brigade (Bidema), the Superintendency of the Environment (SMA) and the National Prosecutor’s Office -, pursuant to Law No. 20. 285 on Transparency in Public Service and Access to State Administration Information. In addition, interviews were conducted with specialists in the legal and scientific research areas.

Chile’s marine biodiversity under threat

The report warns that marine mammals that carry out their life cycles and travel in Chilean waters are increasingly threatened by anthropogenic activities. These include industrial and artisanal fishing operations, the expansion of intensive aquaculture -specifically salmon farming-, and the poorly regulated maritime traffic, which places the conservation of their populations at risk, especially those species in critical danger of extinction.

Among the threatened marine mammal species are the large cetaceans that face lethal collisions with high-speed, high-tonnage vessels, together with the growing and intense maritime traffic linked to industrial salmon farming, whose routes overlap the reproduction, breeding, feeding and migratory routes of the various whale species. Other impacts reported are associated with noise pollution, entanglement in fishing nets and anti-whaling fish nets in the farming centers. The complaints also point to the intentional elimination of small cetaceans in the marine farming areas, and common sea lions that enter the cage rafts to opportunistically feed on salmon.

Alarming increase in cetacean strandings in Chile

The study points out that the data provided by Sernapesca are worrying. Between 2009 and 2022, 467 strandings of cetaceans were reported, including whales, dolphins, porpoises, killer whales, sperm whales and pilot whales, affecting a total of 1,160 individuals. In 2009, 11 strandings were recorded, while in 2022 the number increased to 67, i.e., there was a 600% increase in stranding reports.

In addition, of the total of 1,160 strandings, 964 resulted in death, which is equivalent to 83% of the total strandings recorded. In 2023, a total of 114 cetacean strandings were reported, affecting a total of 131 individuals, of which 126 were reported dead, or 96% of the total.

Bárbara Galletti, president of the Cetacean Conservation Center (CCC) and invited member of the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Committee (IWC), was consulted on the management of complaints by Sernapesca for cases of cetacean strandings. According to the researcher, even when there is evidence of strandings due to interactions with boats, Sernapesca does not always report these events to the public prosecutor’s office. She pointed out as an example the case of a whale stranded in 2017, whose tail was cut by the propeller of a ship, and before this very serious fact, the Service chose not to enter the complaint, without explaining the grounds for such refusal.

Bárbara Galletti argues that Sernapesca is endowed with economic resources that allow it to fulfill its marine inspection functions. However, there is an inequity in the distribution of these resources, since a large part of the money is used to finance programs that promote the industrial development of fishing and aquaculture, while the resources allocated to fulfill its marine conservation tasks are minimal, which shows that the objectives of protection and sustainable development continue to occupy a secondary place in Sernapesca’s agenda.

The researcher of the study, Claudia Arancibia, points out that the investigation warns of a fact of total seriousness in terms of the information provided by some public services, which allow us to verify a passive and negligent action on their part, regarding the initiative and participation in administrative and judicial procedures that sought to determine the cause of death of cetaceans and sanction those responsible.  Furthermore, it is clear that Chile urgently needs to improve programs to respond to cetacean stranding events. Not having these effective programs deprives the acquisition of scientific knowledge to understand their origin, the latter being key to effectively address such events, either for the timely salvation of stranded individuals, or to concretely establish their cause of death.

Reports of sea lion slaughter go unpunished

Despite the numerous complaints that have been filed with government agencies for intentional elimination of sea lion specimens, which occurred inside salmon farming centers, to date there is only one conviction with a fine against two workers of the company Salmones Yadrán, for the death of a common sea lion specimen in 2018.

Through the presentation of subsequent complaints, it is corroborated that these situations continue to occur, demonstrating the null dissuasive effect of the current criminal sanctioning regime for the protection of marine mammals.

The Ecoceanos Center filed a complaint documented with photographic material in 2019 before the Bidema for intentional eliminations of common sea lion specimens in the Nova Austral farming center, located in Capitan Aracena Island, Magallanes and Chilean Antarctica region. The report developed by Claudia Arancibia points out that the Bidema was consulted about the current status of this complaint, to which it refused to provide background information because the case is still under investigation after five years.

Based on these same facts, in 2021 Ecoceanos filed a complaint with the SMA of the Magallanes Region. When the SMA was consulted about the progress of this complaint, it reported that it is still under investigation by the Magallanes and Chilean Antarctica Regional Office, whose Environmental Inspection Report is being prepared and no measures have been taken to date.

In this regard, the director of the Ecoceanos Centre, veterinarian Juan Carlos Cardenas, said that considering the increasing lethal interactions between marine mammals and industrial and artisanal fishing activities, coupled with the territorial expansion of salmon farming, which includes national parks and marine protected areas, this research shows that there is no official and political will in Chilean state agencies to make transparent this hidden reality, which is threatening the survival of species so threatened in their survival, such as whales and dolphins, this investigation makes it clear that there is no official and political will in Chilean state agencies to make transparent this hidden reality, which is threatening the survival of such endangered species as the blue whale and southern right whale, especially in Patagonian waters.

Celeste Jiménez, criminal lawyer, animal rights defender and president of the organization AnimaNaturalis, points out that the National Public Prosecutor’s Office does not have an instruction that regulates the investigative actions and proceedings for the crime of animal abuse. She regrets that there is no legal mechanism to sanction those officials who do not comply with the obligation to initiate and carry out investigations, especially in cases that affect highly vulnerable and internationally protected species, whose conservation is of great public interest.

Withholding of information

The Ecoceanos Center’s investigation shows a lack of public transparency in the provision of information and concealment of serious facts by State agencies that threaten the conservation of marine mammals. This is evident, for example, in the response provided by Sernapesca regarding the complaints filed for the crimes of animal abuse (Article 291 bis of the Penal Code) and the hunting, capture and killing of cetaceans established in Article 135 bis of the General Law of Fisheries and Aquaculture (LGPA). The service provided information on only 13 complaints, which is not consistent with the complaints filed by citizens and presented by the service for cases of mistreatment and intentional elimination of sea lions linked to the salmon industry.

This omission demonstrates a serious denial of access to public information, which points not only to the concealment of these facts, but also to the cover-up of those companies involved, and the attempt to minimize the serious problem of lethal interactions between marine mammals and economic activities at sea. There is also insufficient background information provided by the SMA, total lack of transparency and timeliness of the Bidema to provide public information, and denial of information by the National Prosecutor’s Office.

In addition to the above, the report demonstrates a lack of coordination of public services and training/qualification of their officials to handle complaints about lethal interactions, intentional removals of marine mammals, and the conduct of investigations on cetacean strandings.

The report also details serious regulatory deficiencies, which hinder judicial processes and the application of sanctioning procedures with a dissuasive effect on those responsible, so that many of the legal provisions in force become a dead letter.

According to Ecoceanos’ research, the national institutional framework for fisheries and aquaculture remains reactive and not preventive, in violation of the precautionary principle, which governs the regulations governing this sector. This is due to the fact that, despite the scarcity of scientific evidence to identify the causes of cetacean strandings, the establishment and expansion of the salmon farming, fishing and maritime traffic industries in sites that constitute the habitat and movement zones of marine mammals has not been stopped.

The study concludes with the presentation of a series of proposals covering legal, technical and operational aspects governing fisheries and aquaculture institutions, giving priority to the objectives and functions of marine conservation entrusted to each competent public service.

Source: Centro Ecoceanos