A deadly algal bloom has killed nearly 23 million fish in Chile, the world’s second-largest exporter of salmon, causing widespread economic losses that could cost the country $800 million. According to government officials, there are enough dead fish to fill 14 Olympic-sized swimming pools, and losses could account for as much as 15 percent of Chile’s total annual salmon production.
Abnormally high ocean temperatures fueled by one of the strongest El Niños in recorded history has helped the algal bloom flourish off of the Chilean coast, impacting 37 of the 415 salmon farms located either directly in the ocean or in estuaries, according to Reuters.
The Chilean government’s top fisheries official told Reuters that the ocean temperatures have been anywhere from 2 to 4 degrees Celsius above average. The warmer-than-normal waters, combined with mild winds, a lack of rain, and lot of sunlight, have become a perfect place for micro algae to bloom.
“The loss is likely equivalent to somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of Chile’s total production for the year … the forecast for 2016 was around 750,000 to 760,000 tonnes but now that’s reduced to around 650,000 [metric tons],” Jose Miguel Burgos, the head of the government’s Sernapesca fisheries body, said, adding that the 100,000 metric tons of lost product could total some $800 million in economic losses.
But it’s not just the El Niño weather pattern that is playing a factor in Chile’s massive bloom. According to Liesbeth van der Meer, who heads environmental group Oceana’s Chile operations, agricultural waste from neighboring livestock operations, which makes its way into the ocean via runoff, is also fueling the bloom.
The bloom, which was first reported in early March, shows no signs of dissipating. Algal blooms harm marine life by sucking oxygen from the water, through photosynthesis. This results in dead zones, or areas of water that are void of oxygen. Some algal blooms can also be toxic, poisoning fish and shellfish.
Scientists have identified the type of micro algae responsible for the current bloom as Pseudochattonella verruculosa, a relative of the Chattonella, which was reportedly responsible for killing 14 million yellowtail in Japan in 1972, as well as 1,100 tons of salmon in the North Sea in 2001. Pseudochattonella verruculosa, according to Undark, was first detected near Chilean salmon farms in 2004.
Chilean officials told Reuters that in addition to financial losses, salmon farmers will likely suffer job losses as well. And the marked decrease in salmon will certainly impact the United States, which imports more than 100,000 of salmon from Chile every year, or about one in every three imported farmed salmon.
Chile’s salmon fishery isn’t the only important fishery to be impacted by an algal bloom this year. Earlier this summer, in a move that some officials described as “unprecedented,” commercial and recreational fisheries up and down the West Coast were forced to close due to one of the largest toxic algal blooms in history. The bloom, which stretched from Alaska to Mexico, caused high concentrations of domoic acid, a powerful and fatal neurotoxin, to build up in the water. And while domoic acid naturally occurs in algae populations, high concentrations can pose a serious health risk to both marine animals and humans.
As with Chile’s current algal bloom, scientists connected the West Coast algal bloom to unusually warm ocean temperatures fueled by the El Niño weather pattern. But scientists also warned that the algal bloom might be a window into the future, as climate change both increases ocean temperatures and increases the likelihood of strong El Niño patterns occurring.
“The conditions this year are sort of a window to the future, they’re a sign of things to come,” Vera Trainer, manager of the Marine Biotoxin Program at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, told ThinkProgress in June. “We want to know if that is indeed the case. Is this what we’re going to be seeing more of as our oceans continue to warm?”
Algal blooms are largely expected to get worse with climate change. Algae grows better in warm water, both because some species prefer warm water and because warmer waters are less prone to mixing, which encourages algal growth. Climate change is also expected to change rainfall patterns, making heavy precipitation events more likely. Those events, in turn, could lead to more nutrient run-off from farms, further encouraging algal blooms. According to NOAA, algal blooms across the country result in some $82 million in losses annually from the seafood, restaurant, and tourism industries.