Salmon is a fashionable food today. Year after year it gains popularity and rises to the category of "superfood". The fish is a healthy source of protein, especially for high levels of Omega-3 fats, vitamins A, D and K and positive effects in reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
In Chile, salmon farming began to develop in the 1980s, but in the 1990s the country saw a true boom in salmon production.
Growing salmon in the cold and forage-rich waters of the Pacific off the coast of South America has proved to be a rather profitable business. Salmon aquaculture soon became a million dollar industry.
Currently, Chile is the second biggest producer of salmon in the world with an annual income of more than $5 billion. According to official estimates, the salmon industry produces approximately 21,000 jobs; most of them are in the south of the country, an enormous very sparsely populated area washed by the Pacific Ocean.
As the world demand for salmon increased, the advantageous conditions offered by the sea in southern Chile were became more evident both for Chilean and foreign production companies, particularly those from Norway who soon began their long journey to literally the other side of the world.
One such company was Marine Harvest (renamed Mowi at the beginning of the year) which started operating in Chile in 1975. Years passed and with them came the controversies, especially regarding the disparity in production models.
"In Norway we work well, respecting the standards and the workers. The Norwegians should have replicated their local work standards in Chile and there would be no problems. The industry itself is not bad, but it should be regularised and the supervisory bodies should do their job", John Hurtado, President of the National Confederation of Workers of the Salmon Industry (CONATRASAL), told Sputnik.
But the differences in methods of salmon production in Norway and Chile don’t end there. One of the most sensitive and controversial issues has to do with the use of antibiotics in fish farming. Various drugs are regularly used in aquaculture to prevent diseases and increase production.
Salmon produced in Chile consumes an enormous amount of antibiotics compared to the fish produced in other parts of the world such as Canada, Scotland, and Norway.
This is shown in the following graph from a Mowi (formerly known as Marina Harvest) report.
Mowi said that it was “not interested” in participating in this report.
The Cermaq group of companies, owned by the Mitsubishi Corporation, has enterprises in Norway, Canada, and Chile. Here, too, there are significant differences in the amount of antibiotics used in different countries.
Mowi and Cermaq, the world’s two largest producers of salmon grown on fish farms, show substantial differences in the use of antibiotics on salmon farms in Chile and in other countries, primarily in Norway. But they are not the only ones. Chilean companies are also heavily abusing antibiotics.
A record volume of antibiotics was registered in 2014. That year, 1,500 times more pharmaceuticals were used in Chile’s waters than in Norway, whereas this Scandinavian country is the world leader in salmon production.
Although this figure has subsequently decreased, according to the Chilean National Fisheries and Aquaculture Service (Sernapesca) (supervisory authority), about 350 tonnes of antibacterial drugs were used on salmon farms last year alone.
"The answer to the question of why excessive use of antibiotics is observed in Chilean aquaculture of salmon is that the disease caused by Piscirickettsia salmonis is common in Chile. This disease, the so-called rickettsiosis (SRS), is not typical of other parts of the world", believes Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, a member of the Chilean Academy of Sciences and an honorary member of the Chilean Academy of Medicine, MD Felipe Cabello.
According to Cabello, "this pathogen was also found in Norway, Ireland, and British Columbia. But it seems that the infection caused by it in these countries does not lead to such severe lesions, although the pathogens detected in Chile do not appear to be different from pathogens in other countries".
Cabello considers it possible that in Chile, salmon are bred in conditions that make them more susceptible to the causative agents of the aforementioned disease. Thus, according to the producers, it is necessary to feed fish with tonnes of antibiotics annually.
From the perspective of Liesbeth van der Meer from the NGO Oceana, the problem may lie in the very process of salmon breeding in Chile.
"Salmonidae is not endemic to this country, they are exotic fish brought from other regions and they are bred in small cages with a high density. 900,000 tonnes of salmon are farmed in Chilean fjords, located close to each other, so there is a high probability of infection between different fishponds".
The state leases water areas for a period of 25 years with the possibility of extension. At present, 1,412 such areas are being leased in Chile, although not all of them operate simultaneously. Salmon breeding farms are located on these sites. It is about a limited area in which fish live in cages submerged in the ocean.
According to representatives of the Salmon Technology Institute (Instituto Tecnológico del Salmón), a member of the Association of Chilean salmon, a private organisation uniting companies involved in the production and processing of Chilean salmon products (which is part of the Cermaq group of companies), "there is no scientific research (in contrast to studies on other fish species) that would confirm the relationship between the use of antibiotics in salmon aquaculture and the damage to the environment, consumers and industry workers".
"This is not proven but that’s debatable. If you read the scientific literature, you can find publications in Chile, where it is proven that bacteria that develop in the intestines of salmon (and on farms where fish are bred) have resistance similar to that of pathogenic organisms that infect humans. No one knows about the evolution and genetics of bacteria, so it is possible that resistance genes are transferred from the environment to bacteria that infect humans and from bacteria that infect humans, to environmental bacteria", Felipe Cabello pointed out.
This topic is very important, first of all, because, as stated, the food industry, using antibiotics in the production process, may be associated with the problem of resistance to these drugs – according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) – one of the main threats to human health, food security, and development.
According to representatives of NGO Oceana, producers intensively use antibiotics because it is economically justified. “You can produce without antibiotics but it will cost companies much more and their profits will decrease. Producers will stubbornly refuse. In fact, there are no special incentives to change the situation”, Lisbeth van der Meer said.
Despite the fact that Chilean producers claim that the intensive use of antibiotics is "safe", a few weeks ago they committed themselves to cut the use of antibiotics in the production process in half by 2025.
Chiloé is the largest island of the Chiloé Archipelago. The length of the coastline of this and other islands that make up the Chiloé Archipelago is about 2000 kilometres.
Several decades ago, salmon farms appeared in this area. Under their influence not only the landscape on the coast of the Chiloé inland sea changed but also the island’s culture based primarily on the use of marine resources.
"I’m 31 years old and I don’t know the local fish species that my parents knew", says the geographer and activist Álvaro Montaña.
According to him, the disappearance of local fish species is directly related to salmon farming, which damages the environment under the influence of a combination of a number of factors: "On the seabed underneath the cages, zones of hypoxia: oxygen deficiency and lack of life formed". This is a result of "accumulation of nutrients contained in salmon excreta that accumulate in the water and on the seafloor. In addition, food residue and organic fish waste are laid on the bottom".
But not only is this detrimental to endemic representatives of fauna, but also the mass escape from salmon farms.
For example, last year about 690,000 salmonids escaped from one of Mowi’s (formerly Marine Harvest) farms.
"Each such escape does enormous damage to the ecosystem. Atlantic salmon is an exotic species, a predator that occupies the top position in the food chain. Fjords are home to smaller species, endemic fish species. In some places, this type of fauna has completely disappeared", says Lisbeth van der Meer of Oceana.
According to the experts from the Salmon Technology Institute, "in the Pacific Ocean zone, the damage caused by salmon escapes from farms is much less due to the low survival rate of the escaped units… That is, according to the information currently available, aquaculture does not cause such significant damage to the environment because of the escape of predatory fish as it is credited with".
Álvaro Montaña does not agree with that assertion. He believes that the conditions of salmon farming and the geographical location of farms in the long term will inevitably lead to massive escapes. "We are at 42 degrees south latitude, and farms reach 50 degrees, almost reaching Punta Arenas (a city located on the coast of the Strait of Magellan). This is a zone of Chilean fjords, as well as storms, heavy rain, strong sea currents that lead to damage of fencing and flooding of fishponds, which in turn leads to massive escapes".
According to official figures, since 2010 about 3.3 million units have escaped from salmon farming sites. According to the secretary of Lagos State Ministry of Economic Planning and Budget, 1.9 million of them escaped from Mowi farms (formerly Marine Harvest). The Norwegian company has denied the official's statements.
Changes in Culture
The impact of salmon farming activities on the island of Chiloé has been so profound that many say it has changed forever.
"Many years ago, our great leaders were saying that the island would be occupied. And now it is occupied by salmon farms; they saw it, they predicted it, including the disaster that these companies were going to cause, as well as their negative impact on our culture", Ruth Cailleo Caicheo, a representative of the Mapuche people, the indigenous inhabitants of the island of Chiloé, said.
Ruth believes that the occupancy of the water area has changed the food intake of the local community for the worse. The pollution of the seabed and the escape of salmon have contributed to the lack of marine resources, which were formerly abundant. Without the marine resources, the locals have been forced to change their way of life.
"The current conditions have made us become individualists and look out for ourselves", Ruth told Sputnik. "My father was a fisherman as well as my grandparents… I have many relatives who were engaged in fishing, but our culture has transformed. We no longer live as one community. Most families have broken up; men have to earn their living by working on salmon farms. There’re no more natural sources of marine resources", the woman said.
For Álvaro Montaña, the economic aspect of the impact of the salmon industry on the environment is what prevails in the debate, while its negative effects and the damage it causes are pushed into the background.
"Salmon producers talk about the number of jobs that they generate, repeating it like a mantra. But why should we believe producers who lie all the time? One would have to ask how many jobs have been lost as a result of the fishery decline. Could it be that the loss is greater than the profit?" the expert wonders.
This opinion is widespread in southern Chile. Perhaps, this is why the visit of King Harald V of Norway was not just a source of beautiful photographs for the Nordic royal family. In his journey through the practically virgin channels of southern Chile, whose fjords are very similar to those of Norway, Harald V was beginning to frown more and more. Protesters from a number of indigenous and environmental organisations were asking the king for Norwegian salmon breeding companies not to operate in the South America. "They destroy the environment and riparian communities", many were saying.
Ruth Caicheo agrees with those demands; she speaks about how her people were proud of their traditional way of living, the central element of which was the family, and the community as an extension of it. But that has changed in the last 30 years.
"Our culture has changed for the worse. We no longer live according to the principles of union and solidarity, when people were looking out for each other", she said.
At the same time, Ruth feels optimistic about the future: "I believe that we can still do something, that we can strengthen our traditions and not give them up in order to not lose our roots", she explained, while saying goodbye to Sputnik outside her house, which has a mountain in front of it and the ocean behind it.