23 million Salmon have been killed in a massive ocean algae bloom in Chile. The perennial Pacific phenomenon, which has been one of the strongest on record this past season, is marked by higher-than-normal water temperatures and the devastating consequence of agriculture runoff.
The El Niño weather phenomenon has helped create ocean temperatures 2 to 4 degrees celsius above average for this time of the year, combined with agriculture runoff from farms to near by streams and rivers that empty into the Pacific Ocean, the algae bloom has affected 37 of the nearly 415 salmon farms operating in southern Chile. Aquaculture is similar to factory farming but involves ocean enclosures or estuaries where fish are breed, kept in small areas, and killed for human consumption.
Liesbeth van der Meer, who heads the environmental group Oceana in Chile, has said that the algae bloom problem has been exacerbated by the nitrate-rich runoff from animal agriculture farms from nearby land around the salmon farms. The runoff from neighbouring animal farms creates concentrations of nitrogen that when mixed with the above-normal temperatures, create the ideal scenario for the algae to grow. As climate change worsens and global atmospheric temperatures continue to climb, ocean temperatures will also rise and algae blooms will become common place.
How is the Algae Bloom in Chile Caused?
There are over 550 ocean dead zones around the globe today. Also known as hypoxic zones, these lifeless areas can occur naturally at smaller levels, but primarily they occur near areas where heavy agricultural and industrial activity spill nutrients into the water and compromise its quality accordingly.
As the excess nutrients from land, sewage, agriculture fertiliser, pesticide, and manure runoff are piped as wastewater into the network of rivers and streams, it eventually hits the ocean coasts. Phytoplankton are attracted and appear in mass numbers around these nutrient dense areas. The excess nutrients fertilise the rapid growth of the phytoplankton in a process known as eutrophication. When the phytoplankton use up all the nutrients, they die and sink to the bottom as organic matter, where they are decomposed by bacteria. This kind of massive algae bloom is then consumed by microbes that also consume oxygen in the process.
More algae means more oxygen-burning, and thereby less oxygen in the water, resulting in a massive flight by those fish, crustaceans, and other ocean-dwellers able to relocate as well as the mass death of immobile creatures, such as clams or other bottom-dwellers. This is when the microbes that thrive in oxygen-free environments take over, forming vast bacterial mats that produce hydrogen sulfide, a toxic gas, and form ocean dead zones.
However, fish who are held prisoner in aquaculture have no way of escaping and saving their lives. They, instead, suffocate due to the lack of oxygen in the water and die painfully. 23 million suffocating fish because of the algae bloom in Chile and the only thing the news headlines report is a loss of 100,000 tonnes of fish carcass valued at around $800 million and future job losses in the sector. But when you only value animal life in form of dollars, you could care less about their suffering and the damage done to the ocean that sustains our very lives.
Recognising that industries such as aqua and animal agriculture are inherently cruel and ultimately very damaging to the environment is long overdue. It’s time to evolve and revolutionise the systems that time and time again prove to be inefficient and problematic.