Chile is the world’s second largest salmon producer, with salmon being the country’s third largest export industry. The salmon farmed in Chile is generally Atlantic salmon, which is not native to the Southern hemisphere and has only recently been farmed in Chile, beginning with Fundacisn Chile in the late eighties. Chile is a prime environment for salmon farming, with numerous inlets and fjords offering pristine waters and protection from rough ocean currents for salmon pens.
Puerto Montt, 600 miles south of Santiago, is the central town for Chile’s salmon farming industry. In 2006, the area had 800 salmon farms and 10% of the job market of the area, as well as the world’s largest closed system fish farm in the world, holding 35 million fish.
From Farm to Table
Chilean farmed salmon are first hatched in freshwater hatcheries and then matured in open cages, which are metal on the surface with a netted bottom. Each farm holds 1 million to 1.5 million fish.
After being harvested, the salmon are sold mostly abroad. 29% of Chilean exports are sent to the United States through retailers such as Safeway or, until recently, Costco.
Marine Harvest, a Norwegian company, is the world’s largest farm raised salmon producer, raising 20% of Chilean salmon, which are sold through the company to large grocery corporations, such as Safeway, Costco, and Walmart.
Several American companies, including Walmart and Costco, have stopped buying Chilean salmon due to concerns over consumer health and environmental damage. In 2010, Walmart stopped buying Chilean salmon, and in July 2015, Costco rejected Chilean salmon, which used to consist of 90% of salmon sold in Costco stores. Although no dangers to human health have been proved as of 2015, Costco was concerned by the excessive antibiotic use in Chilean farms to prevent a bacteria outbreak. The bacteria, Piscirickettsiosis, or SRS, causes lesions, hemorrhaging, and kidney and spleen swelling, and many salmon farms across the world have been infected.
Antibiotics and Disease
In 2014 alone, Chile used 1.2 million pounds of antibiotics, with antibiotic use rising 25% since 2013.
Some of these antibiotics are prohibited for use on animals in the United States, and currently there is no registry to track the drugs used and virtually no regulation of antibiotics. Despite growing worries, Chilean salmon farmers argue their product is safe for human consumption because the antibiotics are administered months before harvest. However, excessive antibiotic use has led to resistant SRS strains in Chile, and salmon farmers face other diseases due to packed conditions as well. For example, infectious salmon anemia, or ISA, has killed 2 billion USD worth of salmon in Chile since 2007.
Environmental and Social Impact
In addition to consumer health concerns, Chilean salmon farms have negative environmental and social consequences for the region. 1 million salmon escape from farms in Chile per year, eating native fish and invading rivers and lakes as far as Argentina. However, the escaped fish cannot successfully establish populations or corrupt local salmon genetics because Atlantic salmon are not native to the Southern Hemisphere.
The farms also impact local workers, who work long hours with low pay in salmon processing plants. Salmon farming brought an industrial revolution to areas of Chile, transforming subsistence farmers and fishers into processing plant workers. These workers are mostly women working dangerous tools at a demanding pace, often with sexual harassment and no bathroom breaks. The area has antiunion practices which prevent progress in improving working conditions.
Catherine Winn is a first-year at Wellesley College. She’s undecided on her major and enjoys reading, backpacking, playing piano, and of course learning about aquaculture.
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