Salmon Fishing Below the Equator: The Patagonia Experiment

When you think of Chinook Salmon, you probably think of the Pacific Northwest and some of the more famous rivers like the Skeena or the declining population on the Columbia River. It’s no secret that salmon populations have been falling in the PNW for some time now, mostly due to human interference like dams, pollution, and over fishing.

Damnation

What you probably don’t think of is South America, and more specifically the Patagonia region. I know I certainly didn’t. I had an Argentinean professor in college who I was discussing fishing with one day after class. She mentioned the world class salmon fishing over the border in Chile. “No no no” I said, thinking this was clearly a translation issue, “What you mean is there are massive trout that could easily be mistaken for salmon”. But she was right, and here’s the real story.

patagonia

In the 1980s, biologists took wild stocks of Chinook salmon from the Colombia River and deposited them in rivers of Patagonia. After the preliminary results in the ’80s showed promise, the stocking effort was intensified in the ’90s and now the “wild” Chinook population is absolutely booming in the southern hemisphere. There are various accounts of how the salmon got there, and in the interest of full disclosure some argue that the original Chinook population began with a few escaped farm fish in Chile, or the introduction of just a small batch of juveniles into the Rio Santa Cruz in the 1930s.

Semantics aside, these fish are there, and a first glance at one of these Patagonia rivers would instantly send a chill up any fisherman’s spine. They are simply prime territory for wild salmon. What is so interesting is how infrequently Patagonia is mentioned during conversations about salmon fishing. Google “Patagonia Salmon” and you’ll get the Patagonia clothing store selling you salmon jerky – who knows why they do that. Add “fishing” to that Google search and you get this.

Solid Adventures Patagonia

In any case, there is a bit of controversy over this salmon stocking issue. Most diehard fishermen are against stocking, or at least believe that it has it’s place. As highlighted in the film Damnation, the lack of genetic diversity in the stocked hatchery salmon of the Pacific Northwest has been devastating to the wild populations. This, accompanied with toxic waste pollution, overfishing, and the placement of dams on almost every major salmon river has led to an overall decline of salmon populations above the equator.

However, Patagonia is one of the world’s largest areas of protected land. There are few factories, almost no dams, and fewer people to affect the “natural” progression of the salmon in South America (although this is beginning to change*). Many critics of the Patagonia Salmon operation argue that it is simply unsustainable and immoral to introduce a non-native species to an ecosystem that functions perfectly well. This is valid, and the Chinooks could arguably outcompete native species for the already scarce food resources in the area – which would be bad.

Conservacion Patagonica

On the other hand, the success of the Patagonia Chinooks serves as a pretty good poster child for the resilience of the salmon species as a whole. Without human interference, these salmon have been multiplying rapidly. So far, we have seen no obvious major repercussions to the existing ecosystems. It’s still early in the game and these repercussions may be in the mail, but whichever way you look at it, it’s pretty remarkable that these salmon are able to thrive 7,000 miles away from their homeland. If they were only given a fighting chance in the PNW, they might be able to make a full recovery.

*Help Conservacion Patagonica stop the construction of two hydroelectric dams.

Want to fish for King Salmon in Patagonia? Check out Solid Adventures on Amberjack.

Article originally published 11/17/15

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