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In 2009, a raging epidemic of infectious salmon aenemia devastated the Chilean salmon farming industry. Eight years prior, Jonathan Franklin and Casey Woods published this story in Latin Trade magazine

Born on a boardroom table and fueled by labor cost advantages and an aggressively trade-oriented government, Chile’s salmon industry is a global success story, rising from negligible 10 years ago to an estimated US$1 billion annually–5% of Chile’s total exports.

But, critics charge, the drive for growth-boldly predicted to top $2 billion by decade’s end, making Chile the world’s No. 1 producer–could carry a significant health cost for consumers of Chilean salmon around the globe.

Overcrowding of fish, overuse of antibiotics and careless husbandry has left the Chilean salmon business straddling a fine line between meeting the demand it has created and following basic health practices respected abroad. Interviews conducted by LATIN TRADE found that abuses are widespread and likely to continue unless regulatory bodies act soon. Among the problems:

* Overcrowding of fish in pens means most die before harvest. The remaining fish are rushed to maturity with hormones.

* Disease outbreaks that should lead to quarantines and emptied pens are instead fought with massive doses of antibiotics. As a result, “super bugs” impervious to drugs take hold of the fish.

* Diseased fish are often harvested before symptoms are noticeable. They are processed or, in some cases, sold raw for sushi, which forms the biggest market for Chilean salmon.

* Government bans on suspected cancer-causing chemical treatments, combined with lack of oversight, has led to use of chemicals never meant for aquaculture.

* Carcasses of dead, diseased salmon are ground up into fish meal and fed to other animals, including cows and chickens.

Salmon, once considered a “white tablecloth” product destined for fancy restaurants, has made an impressive migration down market in recent years. Mass production techniques have turned an expensive seasonal delicacy into a year-round commodity, cheaper than beef and turkey in some U.S. supermarkets.

The boom in worldwide salmon consumption began in 1990 and has tripled over the past decade, to 1.9 million metric tons in 2000. Driven by growing supply from Chile, consumers from Japan and the United States–where Chilean salmon holds market shares of approximately 70% and 46%, respectively–now eagerly snap up 740 metric tons of the fish daily.

Chile’s southern fjords are ideal for industrial salmon farms. Low production costs in tandem with low wages, and coupled with minimal government oversight, pushed prices down so much that they unleashed trade complaints from competitors around the globe.

Despite huge market growth, Chile’s government keeps no statistics on the quantities of antibiotics used in raising salmon, nor is there controlled veterinary oversight. The dearth of regulation allows companies to be sloppy; sanitary goals, for example, are based on “gentleman’s agreements” among producers–a dangerous precedent in a competitive industry in which wholesale prices are falling. As profit margins get squeezed, the temptation to cut corners or ignore agreements becomes too appealing. “This business is loaded with external factors. No company can invest a significant amount if other companies don’t go along with them. It would be a wasted effort,” says Gustavo Parada, head of aquaculture for public-private business development agency Fundacion Chile.

Basic practices, like creating disease-free areas to ensure that healthy fish are kept separate from sick ones, have not caught on in Chile. Rickettsia, or spotted fever–for which 80% of the antibiotics in Chile are used–spread south to the heart of the Chilean salmon farms because infected fish were not isolated. “All it took was a single company under pressure for financial and production reasons and [infected] fish were sent [south],” says ictopathologist and Universidad Austral professor Ricardo Enriquez. The death rate for Chilean coho salmon infected with rickettsia is 90%.

Violations of other gentleman’s agreements also led to new outbreaks of BKD, bacteria that attack the salmon’s liver. Since BKD can be almost fully controlled by testing the breeding stock, the disease had nearly disappeared in Chile. However, in 1999, a sudden resurgence was traced to the use of contaminated salmon eggs. “Although the companies spent huge sums to do a sanitary check on the breeding stock, because of scarcity [of salmon eggs] they were obliged to use eggs from [BKD] positive parents,” says Enriquez. “They should have been destroyed.”

Lax laws. Even where regulations exist, salmon producers are not always inclined to respect them. An example is malachite green. Considered by salmon farmers a miracle treatment for a fungus that plagues early salmon development, its use has come under fire after studies indicated it is a potential carcinogen. Malachite green in aquaculture was outlawed in Chile in 1995, but enforcement is lax and importation of an industrial-strength version containing heavy metals is permitted. The latter’s unregulated use is widespread among salmon farmers, environmentalists charge. It is used in hatcheries as well as directly in the once-pristine lakes where young fish spend their first year.

The strongest criticism of Chile’s salmon operations comes from competing salmon industries. Alaska’s fisheries, for example, insist that Chile’s lax labor laws make it impossible to compete with Chilean prices.

What Chile’s foreign critics fear most, however, are new diseases. In Norway, for example, medications are strictly regulated and producers are forced to vigorously control salmon epidemics. When disease hits, wide swathes of the salmon industry there are quarantined. In British Colombia during 1998, 25% of the production centers were forced to lie fallow for a year in an effort to slow the spread of disease. Chile does not have such safeguards in place.

Scientists are also worried about the Chilean practice of selling dead and diseased salmon for fish meal, which is used in animal feed. Diseased cattle feed led to the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. Affected cows carry the ailment–thought to be a virus or a part of a virus-for two to eight years before showing symptoms: poor coordination, nervousness, aggressiveness, difficulty rising and walking. After symptoms appear, the infected cow dies or must be destroyed within six months.

Scientists are carefully searching for a causal link between mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a degenerative disease that similarly affects humans. In response, Britain prohibited feeding dead cattle to living cattle.

In July 2001, the European Union banned fish meal from Chile and Peru from being fed to cows and sheep in Europe’s trade zone, citing concerns that cow meat or other unacceptable elements were included in the fish meal. In the midst of such fears, the commercialization of dead, diseased salmon–so-called “morts”–is a dangerous gamble for Chile’s fish meal industry, the second largest provider in the world. Norway, currently the world’s No. 1 salmon producer, also uses dead fish as feed but only for animals bred for their fur, not those produced for food.

A race is now on between companies marketing Chilean salmon and scientists racing for biotechnological solutions. “The problem is that Chile now has an industry that needs technology, that needs knowledge,” says Pablo Valenzuela, a Chilean scientist who co-founded Emeryville, California-based biotech company Chiron. “The country is very slow. Science and technology are not a priority.” The industry doesn’t mention this because it views discussions about infections as anti-marketing, continues Valenzuela, who is researching salmon vaccines. “The public,” he says, “is supposed to imagine that the fish they are eating are pretty and infection-free.”

The danger of overusing antibiotics is real. Much like overuse to fight human ills, antibiotics in food production contribute to the creation of bacteria that no longer respond to antibiotic treatments.

In 1999, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which oversees food safety, documented 11,500 cases in which consumers contracted antibiotic-resistant strains of campylobacter from eating contaminated poultry. Fluoroquinolones, the antibiotic employed to treat campylobacter and other illnesses, is used to treat poultry for E. coli infections and, consequently, caused the resistance.

While the FDA monitors U.S. fish farmers, Chile does not regulate its industry. “The laws simply don’t exist,” says Sandra Bravo, a Universidad Austral professor and a consultant to the salmon industry “The implementation of sanitary measures is completely voluntary.

Health inspections of salmon are based on samples chosen by the companies, rather than random testing by the fisheries service. But urgently needed regulations are being drafted, says Jose Miguel Burgos, head of the health department for Chile’s national fisheries service. “We want to create a new team of veterinarians who will be independent,” he explains.

Daniel Rebolledo, head of the technical arm of Chile’s Association of Salmon and Trout Producers, says the industry is working to improve. Industrywide agreements are stricter than current regulations, Robelledo points out, although he acknowledges that there is no penalty for not complying with the agreements. He also concedes that there are wide differences in management practices. “It’s true that there could be individual behaviors on the part of certain companies that aren’t ideal, but I believe they are in the minority,’ Rebolledo says.

One prototype for healthy salmon production is Canadian-owned Marine Harvest, Chile’s largest salmon producer. Every Marine Harvest fish that dies is autopsied, and the caretakers of the cages attend annual seminars to teach them early signs of disease. The extra work has paid off: Marine Harvest proudly notes that, in recent years, it has reduced antibiotics use by 50%, in line with internatinal standards. “We are in the process of converting fish that have traditionally used many chemical products to fish that will not need them,” says Daniel Nieto, head of the health department at Marine Harvest. “Give us time.”

Will consumers wait? Advocacy groups in the northern hemisphere are organizing to educate consumers on farmed salmon techniques, including the use of dyes to color farmed salmon flesh pink. (Farmed salmon naturally maintain a gray hue, so manufacturers are compelled to mix colorants into the food to produce shades of consumer friendly pinks). Besides aesthetic issues, the campaigns include warnings about misuse of antibiotics and the diseases currently ravaging farmed salmon populations in Chile and elsewhere. Chile’s salmoneros might not have the luxury of time.

“Aquaculture has an assured future; to oppose it is to deny reality,” says Mena Millar, former head of the United Nations’ fisheries program for Latin America and the Caribbean. “Although, without a doubt, to accept it badly done–which is currently the case–is not correct. It ought to be clean production, which consumers deserve.”

COPYRIGHT 2001 Freedom Magazines, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group