Updated 2 weeks, 1 day ago

Saving Chile’s contaminated fish farming industry

As Greenpeace warns of an environmental disaster in Chile due to “toxic fish farming”, its salmon farming industry must prove its commitment to environmental sustainability if it is to continue competing in a highly competitive global fish market.

Chilean seas have earned a reputation as one of the world’s largest producers of farmed salmon, second only to the frigid waters of Norway. However, environmental warnings by conservationists bring attention to the massive use of antibiotics and toxic chemicals being used in the country’s overloaded fish farms.

The use of chemicals has become prolific in Chile, particularly since a devastating 2007 outbreak of Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA). This represented the first ISA outbreak in the Chilean salmon industry, and resulted in the contamination and subsequent closure of multiple facilities, with almost 2,000 employees made redundant.

The deputy director of the National Fisheries Service, Alicia Gallardo, declared that more stringent sanitary regulations have been introduced post-2007. One could argue that these sanitary regulations have forced the hand of Chilean salmon producers to protect their fish stocks with the use of increasing levels of antibiotics. “What we are doing is ensuring food security, and contributing good quality proteins to the world. Our responsibility is to meet not only environmental and sanitary standards, but also social and economic,” Gallardo affirmed.

However, to add to the ruin caused by ISA, the Chilean salmon industry has become increasingly apprehensive due to the proliferation of another disease known as Salmon Rickettsial Syndrome (SRS), which has recently devastated fish populations. SRS is caused by the bacterium Piscirickettsia Salmonis, which causes hemorrhaging and death in the infected fish.

Disease control has become synonymous with the use of antibacterial drugs. As fish farmers have introduced increasing concentrations of antibiotics, the aquatic bacteria have developed worrying levels of resistance, forcing the use of larger quantities of drugs as a countermeasure. This application results in more drug-resistant bacteria, and the need for even larger concentrations of antibiotics. The operation becomes a dizzying affair. The consequences are still uncertain.

There is no evidence that a drug-resistant bug could be picked up by a salmon consumer. Nonetheless, the environmental impact weighs heavy on the consumer’s mind. U.S. food industry concerns correlate a heavy use of antibiotics in animals with the spawning of drug-resistant superbugs. Concern in the United States has led to some chains, such as Whole Foods and Costco, to phase out Chilean salmon exports – a trend which has gained momentum since at least 2014. SRS is estimated to cause losses of over US$100 million every year in the Chilean salmon fishing industry.

There is no refuting the fact that the standards of Chilean salmon farming have improved in recent years. But as Oceana contributor Justine Hausheer argues, this is still not the time for celebration. “It’s fair to say that salmon farming is better than it used to be, but it used to be horrendous.”

Raul Súnico, Chile’s former Undersecretary of Fisheries and Aquaculture, declared that the industry must focus less on immediate profits, and more on environmental sustainability. Súnico has suggested that the implementation of controls and regulations has significantly contributed to improved sustainable salmon farming practices since 2010. The increasing use of antibiotics during the same period is indicative of a tangential storyline.

Solution through collaboration?

At a global level, initiatives are being put in place to combat what is becoming a widespread and stubborn scourge. In the Seafood Expo North America, hosted in Boston from the 19th to the 21st March, the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA) partnered with Multiexport foods, the Monetary Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, and Mitsui, to launch an initiative to combat the incidence of SRS. The initiative involves a health management program which includes vaccination, genetic selection, and water quality monitoring.

With an eye to improving farming standards in Chile in the short term, partnerships for fishing advances are vital and increasingly sought after. As GAA president, George Chamberlain, declared, “The Global Aquaculture Alliance is pleased to collaborate on this unique opportunity to apply the principles of integrated health management and biosecurity area management to reduce the use of antibiotics in controlling an otherwise intractable disease.”

Similarly, the Global Salmon Initiative (GSI) issued a Statement of Intent on 16th March, surrounding its commitment alongside pharmaceutical companies to supporting R&D to find new fish health products. Finding a vaccine which offers an effective solution to SRS is the main driver behind GSI’s commitment. The first anti-SRS vaccine was produced by Pharmac in March 2016, specifically developed for Chilean farmers. As of yet, there is minimal published information on the efficacy or economic value of current commercial vaccines.

While U.S. consumers continue to shy from Chilean salmon, and conservationists warn of far-reaching environmental impacts, the industry must adapt to eco-friendly measures if it is to sustain itself, if only for the economic incentive. Initiatives proposed by organizations such as GAA and GSI offer the industry hope in what could be a promising future for Chilean salmon.