Something Fishy about Chile's Salmonby Alexei Barrionuevo
New York Times, March 28, 2008
PUERTO MONTT, Chile - A spreading plague is killing millions of salmon beneath the rows of neatly laid netting around the fish farms off Chile's southern shores.
A virus called infectious salmon anemia, or ISA, is dooming fish destined for export to Japan, Europe and the United States and sending shivers through Chile's third-largest industry.
It also has opened the companies to fresh charges from biologists and environmentalists who say the breeding of salmon in crowded underwater pens is contaminating once-pristine waters and producing potentially unhealthy fish.
Some say the industry is raising its fish in ways that court disaster, and producers are coming under new pressure to change their methods to preserve southern Chile's coast for tourists and other marine life.
"All these problems are related to an underlying lack of sanitary controls," said Dr. Felipe Cabello, a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at New York Medical College in Valhalla, N.Y., that has studied Chile's fishing industry. "Parasitic infections, viral infections, fungal infections are all disseminated when the fish are stressed and the centers are too close together."
Industry executives acknowledge some of the problems, but they reject the notion that their practices are unsafe for consumers. U.S. officials also say the new virus is not harmful to humans.
But the latest outbreak has occurred after a rash of nonviral illnesses in recent years that the companies acknowledge have led them to use high levels of antibiotics. Researchers say the practice is widespread in the Chilean industry, which is a mix of international and Chilean producers. Some of those antibiotics, they say, are prohibited for use on animals in the United States.
Many of those salmon still end up in U.S. groceries, where about 29 percent of Chilean exports are destined. While fish from China have come under special scrutiny in recent months, here in Chile regulators have yet to form a registry that even tracks the use of the drugs, researchers said.
The new virus is spreading, but it has primarily affected the fish of Marine Harvest, a Norwegian company that is the world's biggest producer of farm-raised salmon and exports about 20 percent of the salmon that come from Chile.
Salmon produced in Chile by Marine Harvest are sold in Issaquah-based Costco and California-based Safeway stores, among other major grocery retailers, said Torben Petersen, the managing director of Marine Harvest here. A Costco representative could not be reached for comment.
Arne Hjeltnes, the main spokesman in Oslo, Norway, for Marine Harvest, said his company recognizes that antibiotic use is too high in Chile and that fish pens too close together have contributed to the problems. He said Marine Harvest welcomes tougher environmental regulations.
"Some people have advocated that this industry is too good to be true," Hjeltnes said. "But as long as everybody has been making lots of money and it has been going very well, there has been no reason to take tough measures."
He called the present crisis "eye-opening" to the different measures that are needed.
On a recent visit to the port of Castro, about 105 miles south of Puerto Montt, a warehouse contained hundreds of bags, some weighing as much as 2,750 pounds, filled with salmon food and medication. The bags March 28 many of which were labeled "Marine Harvest" and "medicated food" for the fish March 28 contained antibiotics and pigment as well as hormones to make the fish grow faster, said Adolfo Flores, the port director.
Environmentalists say the salmon are being farmed for export at the expense of almost everything else around. The equivalent of 7 to 11 pounds of fresh fish are required to produce 2 pounds of farmed salmon, according to estimates.
Salmon feces and food pellets are stripping the water of oxygen, killing other marine life and spreading disease, biologists and environmentalists say. Escaped salmon are eating other fish species and have begun invading rivers and lakes in neighboring Argentina, researchers say.
"It is simply not possible to produce fish on an industrial scale in a sustainable way," said Wolfram Heise, director of the marine conservation program at the Pumalin Project, a private conservation initiative in Chile. "You will never get it into ecological balance."
When companies began breeding nonnative Atlantic salmon here some two decades ago, salmon farming was seen as a godsend for this sparsely populated area of sleepy fishing towns and campgrounds.
The industry has grown eightfold since 1990 and today employs 53,000 people. Marine Harvest runs the world's largest "closed system" fish-farming operation at Rio Blanco, near Puerto Montt, where 35 million fish a year are raised. As the industry abandons the Lakes region in search of uncontaminated waters elsewhere, local people are angry and worried about their future.
The salmon companies "are robbing us of our wealth," said Victor Gutierrez, a fisherman from Cochamo, a town ringing the Gulf of Reloncavi, which is dotted with salmon farms. "They bring illnesses and then leave us with the problems."
Since discovering the virus in Chile last July, Marine Harvest has closed 14 of its 60 centers and said it will lay off 1,200 workers, or a fourth of its Chilean operation. Since the firm announced last month it would move south, to Aysen, the government has said the virus had spread there as well, in two outbreaks not involving Marine Harvest.
Researchers in Chile say the problems of salmon farming go well beyond the latest virus. Their concerns mirror those of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris, which heavily criticized Chile's farm-fishing industry in a 2005 report.
The OECD said the industry needed to limit the escapes of about 1 million salmon a year; control the use of fungicides like green malachite, a carcinogen that was prohibited in 2002; and better regulate the colorant used to make salmon more rosy, which has been associated with retina problems in humans. It also noted that Chile's use of antibiotics was "excessive."
Officials at Sernapesca, Chile's national fish agency, declined repeated requests for interviews and did not respond to written questions.
But Cesar Barros, the president of SalmonChile, the industry association, said, "We are working with the government to improve the situation."
He dismissed the broader criticism of sanitary conditions, saying there was no scientific evidence to support the claims. But researchers charge that the industry has been reluctant to pay for scientific studies, which Chile sorely needs.
Residual antibiotics have been detected in Chilean salmon that have been exported to the United States, Canada and Europe, Cabello said.
He estimated that 70 to 300 times more antibiotics are used by salmon producers in Chile to produce a ton of salmon than in Norway. But no hard data exist to corroborate the estimates, he said, "because there is almost an underground market of antibiotics in Chile for salmon aquaculture."
Researchers say that some antibiotics that are not allowed in U.S. aquaculture, like flumequine and oxolinic acid, are legal in Chile and may increase antibiotic resistance for people. Last June the FDA blocked the sale of five types of Chinese seafood because of the use of fluoroquinolones and other additives.
But huge numbers of fish go uninspected. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspected only 1.93 percent of all imported seafood in 2006, Food and Water Watch said, citing FDA data.
Stephanie Kwisnek, a spokeswoman for the FDA, said she did not know the percentage inspected. But she said the FDA tested 40 samples of the 114,320 net tons of salmon imported from Chile in 2007. None of them tested positive for malachite green, oxolinic acid, flumequine, Ivermectin, fluoroquinolones, or drug residues, she said.
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