1. Even though intensive aquaculture production of salmonids in lakes occurs in many locations around the world published studies on the survival and reproductive success of escaped cultured salmonids in freshwater ecosystems are not common. A recent expansion of aquaculture in Chile has led it to become the world’s second largest producer of cultured salmonids.
2. We document the recent history of escaped and self-sustaining salmonid populations over a wide spatial scale and a long temporal scale in Chilean Patagonian lakes. Our hypotheses are that salmonid density in lakes will be higher where there is intensive aquaculture, due to greater numbers of potential escapees. Secondly, if non-native salmonids have adverse impacts on native fishes, increases in the abundance of non-native species should be associated with decreases in relative abundance of native species. Finally, if the first two hypotheses are correct we anticipate that diets of salmonids may show evidence of predation on native fishes, diet overlap with native species, and evidence of the influence of feed from aquaculture operations in the diets of salmonids and native fishes.
3. We sampled six lakes with gill nets from 1992 to 2001. Our results show that the relative abundance of free-living salmonids is closely related to the level of fish farming production. Salmonids are the top predators and in lakes with fish farming the main prey item is native fishes. The relative abundance of native fishes has decreased, most likely due to predation by salmonids.
4. Our study contributes to the understanding of the effects of non-native salmonids in oligotrophic lakes, and it provides a starting point to judge the establishment of new fish farming sites in lakes around the world.