Chile is currently facing one of the worst environmental crises in recent times. The southern regions of the South American nation are experiencing what some think is the biggest red tide in history. Caused by an algal bloom, the red tide is toxic to wildlife, causing the mass dying of clams, fish, and squid, among other creatures. The particularly bad event seen this year has led to protests and civil unrest in the communities who depend on the ocean for a living, and yet it seems to be spreading.
Red tides, known technically as “harmful algal blooms,” are caused by microscopic algae which, as the name suggests, can cause the water to turn red. The microorganisms produce harmful toxins that can poison marine wildlife, and while rare, can be debilitating or even fatal to humans. These events are actually a regular occurrence along the coast of southern Chile, though the scale of this one is bigger than anything ever seen before.
The toxins from the algae can also kill larger animals, such as sea lions. Esteban Felix/AP/Press Association Images
Starting in the region of Los Lagos, the red tide has been going on for weeks. But the event shows no sign of slowing, and in fact appears to be spreading north to the region known as Los Ríos. This has worried fishermen further up the coast, who worry that what has so far occurred to the coastal communities of Los Lagos will also happen to them. “The red tide zone is going to grow, it is a changing phenomenon,” explained the country’s deputy minister for fishing and aquaculture, Raúl Sunico, to a local radio station Cooperativa. “Highly toxic samples have been taken in the region of Los Ríos, which obliges us… to close areas of the region to resource extraction.”
Some have blamed the local region's salmon farming industry. They claim that after the bloom killed off most of the salmon stock, thought to have been somewhere in the region of 90,700 tonnes (100,000 tons) of fish, the act of dumping all the dead fish in March exacerbated the problem of the algal bloom.
The salmon farmers obviously deny that this was a factor in the current crisis, and have the support of the government, who also says that there is no link between the two events. The most likely answer is that the annual event has instead been inflamed by the particularly bad El Niño experienced this year.
The ongoing event has led to protests and civil unrest by fishermen in the southern state of Los Lagos. Esteban Felix/AP/Press Association Images
But that hasn’t stopped local fishermen taking to the streets and protesting against the government, who they claim are doing too little to help them. With fishing banned due to the potential risk to human health from eating contaminated seafood, those who rely on the industry to make a living in the coastal towns have been left with no income. To try and ease this, the government offered $147 to each family affected by the crisis, but after complaints and heavy protests finally conceded to raise this to $441.
With little that can actually be done about the red tide except wait it out, the crisis could last months before things start to return to normal. Either way, the impact of this year's red tide will be felt in the marine environment and the communities that depend on it for much longer.