Much of the farmed salmon sold in America is raised on poorly regulated, problem-plagued Chilean farms
by Craig Weatherby
Aquaculture is here to stay, and can play an important role both in providing healthful, affordable fish, and protecting wild stocks.
There are exceptions to the “healthful” part of the aquaculture equation. Despite having equally high levels of healthful omega-3s, farmed salmon is notably less attractive than wild salmon, thanks to the high levels of omega-6 fatty acids and low levels of vitamin D created by its grain-heavy diet. For more on this, see “Farmed Salmon's Diet Yields Unhealthful Cardiovacular Effects” and “Wild Salmon Affirmed as Top Vitamin D Source.”
But unless it is regulated and monitored well, intensive salmon aquaculture as practiced in Chile and elsewhere is unsustainable, and can harm both the environment and the health and safety of fish-farm workers (For a good overview, penned in late 2001 but still remarkably relevant to current conditions, see "Aquaculture's Troubled Harvest" in Mother Jones magazine).
Chile's double-eged salmon boom
Industrial salmon farming in Chile has grown spectacularly over the last 15 years, to become one of the country's most significant economic success stories: at least for Chilean and foreign farm-owners. Some 40 percent of Chile’s farmed salmon come from facilities owned by multinational companies.
But salmon farms have been struggling with disease outbreaks and parasite infestations. Despite plans to triple salmon production by 2013, there has no been no increase in production for the last three years.
These setbacks likely result from what are considered the most intensive salmon farming operations in the world, which have drawn credible allegations of overuse of antibiotics in farmed salmon and poor worker safety practices.
The Pure Salmon Campaign is a project of the National Environmental Trust, with partners in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia and Chile working to improve the way farmed salmon is produced.
Participants included the main unions representing fishing industry and salmon farm workers, and the keynote speeches were delivered by representatives of official national and international bodies.
Antibiotic abuse alleged
Regulations adopted by the United States and European Union restrict the use of antibiotics in salmon farming fairly strictly. But Chilean salmon farms are said to employ these vital human drugs in massive doses.
According to Ecoceanos and other sources, Chilean farms use 75 to 100 times more antibiotics per ton of salmon, compared with Norwegian farms.
Overuse of antibiotics can result in rising salmon-infection rates from antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and contamination of salmon steaks and fillets with antibiotic residues that can promote growth of drug-resistant bacteria in human diners.
Use of antibiotics in Chile for human medicine increased from 5 to 18 tons between 1988 and 2005, while imports of antibiotics for veterinary medicine increased from 60 to 160 tons over the same period.
It seems likely that much of that increased veterinary use of antibiotics occurred on salmon farms, but it cannot be proved conclusively because no one outside the companies knows the actual quantities or types of antibiotics fed to salmon daily on Chilean farms.
Seminar participants from the public health sector urged an immediate ban against using the latest generation of antibiotics, like quinolones and fluoroquinolones, lest use on salmon farms render these last-resort antibiotics useless in human medicine.
Fish-farm use of these chemicals has been banned in the EU and North America for many years, in line with the World Health Organization’s plan for combating microbial resistance to antibiotic drugs.
And recent years have witnessed contamination of Chilean farmed salmon with carcinogenic malachite dye (used as a pesticide), and a ban on Chilean salmon in Japan because of illegal levels of antibiotics found in the fishes’ flesh.
Workers kept in the dark and exposed to dangers
Abuse of salmon farm workers also came under scrutiny during the seminar.
The director of the Working Environment and Conditions Unit of Chile’s National Labor Directorate cited high levels of labor-law infractions on salmon farms, and noted that they’ve risen by 70 percent in recent years.
The rules violated most often are intended to protect health and safety, and workers’ right to know about the risks associated with handling antibiotics and noxious chemicals.
He noted that transnational companies operating in Chile must comply with relevant national laws and adhere to global standards and guidelines, but too often fail to do so.
The director referred specifically to common salmon-farm violations of standards agreed to by the member states of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
—which include the US, Canada, and most of Europe
—the United Nations’ International Labor Organization, and other international bodies.
Over the last 27 months, 38 people have died for reasons related to their work in this large, lucrative industry, and a judgment for involuntary homicide is pending against two senior executives of Marine Harvest: a Norwegian-owned multinational company.
According to Chile’s Ecoceanos, the salmon farming sector has brought these problems on itself, through a disregard for sustainable and equitable social development.
Chile’s non-native farmed salmon make big bucks and big messes
Even though salmon are alien species in Chile and elsewhere in the southern hemisphere, the country was attractive to salmon farmers because of its weak health and environmental standards and a lack of strong enforcement of regulations.
Predictably, the salmon industry in Chile has contributed to the degradation of aquatic ecosystems.
Together with the huge amounts of salmon feces and undigested food “raining” onto the sea floor in small areas, intensive applications of chemicals in fresh and salt-water ecosystems have caused eutrophication, pH changes and dramatic changes to the bacterial composition of the ocean floor.
Eutrophication refers to overgrowth of algae, which cuts sunlight to mid-water and bottom-dwelling organisms and causes wide swings in the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water, creating marine “dead zones” and sharp reductions in the biodiversity needed to sustain local fish stocks.
Adding to these woes are the annual escapes of hundreds of thousands of alien Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) every year, which harms native fish and marine biodiversity.
Salmon farms threaten pristine Chilean region
The salmon business is a global one, where the big players try to achieve “vertical integration of the value chain,” producing fish-food pellets, cultivating market-size fish and distributing fillets worldwide.
Supermarkets and restaurateurs in Japan, USA and Europe grew to love farm-raised Atlantic salmon—initially raised in Maine, Scotland, or Norway—which allowed them to offer fresh cheap salmon year round.
As demand increased, the transnational industry expanded to any sites that offered cheap access to cold, sheltered, waters: such as coastal Chile’s Pacific bays and fjords.
From the mid-1990s on, salmon farming in Chile boomed, as corporations found cheaper labor and fewer environmental and labor laws than in Europe or North America.
As a result, cheap, farm-raised Chilean Atlantic salmon—produced by workers making only $7.00 to $10.00 a day—rules the global market.
Local critics seek to prevent these practices from plaguing Chile’s southernmost region 11—called Aysen—where the industry plans to take advantage of its mostly unexploited coastal waters.
The sparsely populated fjords and islands of Aysen contain 20,000 miles of coastline near which salmon farmers can anchor their pens.
Aysen’s clean, cold, waters have drawn some of the world's fish-farming giants, and a fresh salmon fillet from its fjords can be air-shipped to tables in Japan or the United States within three days.
Ecoceanos and other environmental activists fear that Aysen will fall victim to the same eco-damage as the fully developed 10th region, which provides about 80 percent of Chile’s salmon production but has little or no room for more salmon farms.
We can only hope that it will be better protected than the coastal regions of Chile already damaged by unsustainable salmon farming.
- Centro Ecoceano. Accessed online June 10, 2007 at http://www.ecoceanos.cl
- Cardenas JC. The Salmon Farm Industry in Southern Chile: From Panacea to Pandora’s Box? Accessed online June 10, 2007 at http://www.salmonfarmmonitor.org/guestnovember.shtml
- Reuters, via Florida Museum of Natural History. Salmon Farms Spawn Fortunes, and Critics, In Chile. Accessed online June 10, 2007 at http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/FISH/InNews/salmonfortunes2003.html