Biodiversity, Development & Aid, Environment, Food and Agriculture, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Tierramerica

CHILE: Salmon Industry Won’t Give Up

Daniela Estrada* - Tierramérica

SANTIAGO, Aug 15 2010 (IPS) - The once booming salmon industry in Chile is trying to get back on its feet after the devastating health crisis that cut production in half. But its long-term viability has been called into question.

Workers at a Chilean salmon factory Credit: Courtesy of Fundación Terram

Workers at a Chilean salmon factory Credit: Courtesy of Fundación Terram

“Salmon farming expanded quickly, without a regulatory framework or adequate controls to prevent and anticipate environmental problems or the development of transmittable fish diseases,” Carlos Chávez, an expert in environmental economy and natural resources at the University of Concepción, told Tierramérica.

Chile is second in the world in farmed salmon, after Norway, and specialises in Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), as well as rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) and coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch).

After introducing these exotic species in the 1980s, the industry here grew exponentially until mid-2007, when the infectious salmon anaemia (ISA) virus began to spread through the fish farms in the southern Chilean regions of Los Lagos, Aysén and Magallanes.

The virus forced producers to harvest the fish early and shut down operations in order to clear the waters. The fish farms hit bottom in January 2009.

According to industry estimates, in 2007 and 2008 Chile produced about 650,000 tonnes, while this year the yield is predicted to be between 250,000 and 300,000 tonnes. Of the 55,000 direct and indirect jobs in the sector during its best times, just 25,000 remain.

In 2009, revenues from Chile’s salmon exports reached 2.1 billion dollars, according to the National Customs Service. Nearly all the salmon produced in this country is exported.

“The situation is catastrophic — with former workers losing their homes, and no money to send their children to school or even to eat,” Javier Ugarte, president of the National Confederation of Salmon Workers, told Tierramérica.

According to data the National Fisheries Service provided to Tierramérica, in Los Lagos there are 283 fish farms in operation, 186 in Aysén, and 13 in Magallanes. The latest health report from the Service indicates that just eight farms are believed to currently have the ISA virus.

The response to the crisis was a reform of the 1991 Fishing and Aquaculture Law, which entered into force in April of this year to regulate — among other things — the permits, operation and duration of the concessions, momentarily putting the brakes on expansion of the industry in some regions.

“It is not an environmental protection law or one that benefits the workers. It’s a law to give viability to an industry in crisis, in order to support the salmon farm owners,” said the executive director of the environmental Terram Foundation, Flavia Liberona, who, nevertheless, admitted “some progress” for the environment and workers.

“In the long term, these reforms may generate better environmental and health conditions, because they provide more regulation and monitoring capacity. But how will it be implemented?” she wondered.

Environmentalists and artisanal fishers opposed the reform because it allows the salmon farms to mortgage their concessions in order to obtain bank credits. They warned that this means the “privatisation” of the sea, a national good that they argue is for public use.

The conservative government of President Sebastián Piñera, who took office Mar. 11, is working on the 15 regulations necessary to implement the law, according to José Miguel Burgos, head of the aquaculture division of the Fishing Subsecretariat.

For the last year, he said, “a plan for the rational use of antibiotics” has been under way, which includes the updating of records of these pharmaceuticals, monitoring the factories that incorporate them into fish food, and strengthening regulations.

One of the main criticisms of the industry has been its excessive and unregulated application of antibiotics.

“The density of salmon permitted per cage has been regulated,” and by the end of the year there will be rules “that establish appropriate safety standards for those structures,” added Burgos. The aim is to prevent a massive escape of the farmed fish, which otherwise could turn into predators of native fish species.

The official also noted that experts are measuring the capacity of the ecosystems to absorb the waste from the fish food and discharge from salmon production in the Reloncaví estuary.

Other diseases affect the industry as well, including the Caligus rogercresseyi parasite and rickettsial salmonid syndrome, of bacterial origin, which Burgos assured would be under control by the end of the year. But there is also fear that a disease of the salmon pancreas will appear — another aggressive virus.

The salmon farm owners say they have gone through a “self-critical” process and voluntarily adopted stricter standards. However, the Salmon Industry Association (SalmónChile), declined to respond to Tierramérica’s inquiries.

“The industry is not going to survive if it doesn’t incorporate biotechnological tools,” Rodrigo Vidal, an expert with the University of Santiago, told Tierramérica. Working with other scientists, he obtained public funds to create an Aquaculture Biotechnology Centre, with plans to continue developing genome-based instruments to evaluate the sector.

Vidal is a member of the scientific committee created in 2009 by Canada, Chile and Norway to sequence the Atlantic salmon genome by 2012.

“Are we prepared as a nation to take advantage of the salmon genome, considering that we have Norway as a direct competitor, and is light-years ahead of us in biotechnology?” wondered Vidal, who says the “genome key” is essential for better production, lowering costs and avoiding overexploitation of ecosystems.

In his opinion, this national project is almost unknown, and he has called for immediately improving public-private coordination to put environmental sustainability ahead of economic interests so that salmon farming does not “mortgage the future.”

But according to Liberona, of the Terram Foundation, instead of focusing on an industry that was flawed from the beginning, what is needed is “a real public policy for the Chilean coast,” to coordinate and promote various productive activities, based on research and citizen participation.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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