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Salmon Farms Spawn Fortunes, and Critics, in Chile

by Mary Milliken, Reuters
Environmental News Network, October 2, 2003

PUERTO CHACABUCO -- An air hose blows chocolate colored-pellets into a submerged pen, thousands of plump fish vie for the food and a few do the characteristic salmon jump before another batch of pellets hits the water.

This simple formula for fattening salmon in the pristine waters of Chile's Patagonia is reaping huge returns for the most-advanced economy in South America, set to take over Norway as the world's largest producer of farmed salmon. Norwegian production of salmon grew threefold in the last 10 years, but Chile's jumped nearly 20 times to 35 percent of the world total, compared with Norway's 37 percent share.

And from this new frontier of salmon farming, where snowcapped peaks descend into deep fjords and strong marine currents, Chile wants to double its export of the non-native species to $2.4 billion in 10 years.

"The future is here," said Ignacio Sandoval, manager at Salmones Friosur in Puerto Chacabuco, a fast-growing fishing center full of salmon pens and processing factories. "Like this bay, there are countless places out there in the fjords."

Indeed, on the fjords and islands of Aysen, an area Chileans call the country's 11th region, there are 20,000 miles of coastline to which salmon farmers can anchor their pens. Aysen is remote, a cold corner at the end of the world wedged between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean and home to just 100,000 souls. Its excellent waters, however, have drawn some of the world's fishing giants, like Spain's Pescanova, and logistics are such that a fresh salmon fillet from its fjords lands on a table in Japan or the United States in three days.

"There will be many challenges and accusations, like the ones of dumping that we've had, but we are competitive because of the quality of our waters," said Sen. Antonio Horvath, who backs the industry that brought life to his dormant region.


Norway's industry partly blames Chile's salmon surge for its woes. Fourteen Norwegian salmon farmers have filed for bankruptcy this year, unable to pay the heavy debts they incurred during the boom in salmon in the 1990s.

Salmon introduced to Chile 100 years ago is now one of the pillars of its export-driven economy, along with copper, wood and fruit, and there is plenty of political support for the industry, including that of President Ricardo Lagos.

But not everyone is thrilled with the voracious appetite of Chile's "salmoneros" as the industry is known in Spanish. Environmental activists fear Aysen and its unique biodiversity will fall in the same plight as the 10th region, the birthplace of Chile's salmon farming in the 1980s. The 10th region is still home to some 80 percent of salmon production, but its waters are saturated.

Environmental groups have warned of contamination from intensive farming, including "mountains" of organic waste from food and feces. "They depleted the 10th region and now they are going to replicate this model in the 11th," said Rodrigo Pizarro, executive director of Terram, a Santiago-based think tank that specializes in the environment.

The Aysen producers rebuff criticism of environmental practices and say they are the first ones who want to preserve their edge what they call "the world's purest cold waters." They are fighting to keep a Canadian aluminum plant from going ahead in Puerto Chacabuco.

But those opposed to the industry also argue that it is an unwise use of protein resources. It takes 8.8 pounds of other kinds of fish to make 2.2 pounds of the fish meal that is fed to salmon, to produce roughly 2.2 pounds of salmon.


Chilean salmon has come under fire for using more antibiotics than its northern brethren. Shipments were held up recently in Japan for excessive traces of antibiotics, while the Netherlands blocked Chilean salmon that tested positive for the anti-fungal malachite.

"I've read what they say about our salmon industry and we have many things we need to improve, but we have demanding standards," Lagos said on a visit to Aysen. Amid criticism that salmon farming is growing out of control, the industry association SalmonChile is bent on showing it promotes sustainable expansion.

"We want development based on three pillars: economic growth of the industry, but with care for the environment and social issues," said Javier Cox, president of SalmonChile.

In Aysen, industry workers recognize that the salmoneros have given them what few places in the world have full employment. But there is increasing grumbling about low wages and poor working conditions, and even Lagos told the industry it was time to raise salaries for the 30,000-strong work force.

"If you earn 150,000 pesos a month ($220), how can you afford to raise a family," asks union leader Manuel Margones, before turning his pellet-propelling hose back at his keep, 500,000 salmon headed for Japanese sushi eaters in November.

Mary Milliken, Reuters
Salmon Farms Spawn Fortunes, and Critics, in Chile
Environmental News Network, October 2, 2003

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