Chile’s Salmon Stakes

The provincial outpost of Puerto Montt is home to one of Latin America’s fastest-growing industries: farmed salmon. If everything goes as scheduled, over the next five years an estimated $8 billion in salmon exports will flow from this sparsely populated backwater.

While traditional fishing companies around the world sink into bankruptcy because of the plummeting populations of native species, the Chilean salmon industry has grown steadily for the last 16 years. If current trends continue, Chile will pass Norway this decade and become the world’s leader in salmon production.

Chilean conservation groups, however, have rallied against the uncontrolled growth of salmon farms that now pollute hundreds of miles of once-pristine lakes and oceanfront. "It is very difficult to criticize the salmon industry," says Marcel Claude, a Chilean economist who founded the nonprofit environmental think tank Terram Foundation. "If you oppose it you become an enemy of the state."

Feeding time at a Chilean salmon farm. The $8 billion industry has had an enormous environmental impact.
Helen Hughes

Juan Carlos Cardenas of the environmental group Ecoceanos points out that it takes three pounds of fish meal to produce one pound of farmed salmon. He defines salmon farming as dangerously unsustainable, and notes its impact on native forests and rivers. Cardenas argues that the salmon farms will be the "tip of the spear" for extractive industries wanting to carve up the mostly unspoiled Chilean Patagonia. He adds that the huge salmon concessions will require 5,000 miles of new roads.

Given the pro-development bias of Chile’s government, nobody expects change to come from within. When Chile’s minister of the economy was asked about a proposal to build a highly contaminating aluminium smelter in Patagonia, he responded, "What is the use of the cleanest spot on Earth if nobody lives there?"

According to some Chilean salmon producers, so many of the fish die of disease that they are a market unto themselves. In Chile, carcasses of dead, diseased salmon are ground up and fed to other animals, including cows and chickens. The practice of selling diseased salmon for fish meal also concerns scientists, who note that diseased cattle feed is suspected as a cause in the spread of mad cow disease.

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 can take hold of the fish. Terram reports that the Chilean industry introduces antibiotics directly into the lakes where salmon are cultivated. Thus, the entire ecosystem is "medicated."

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 parasitic fungus, its use has come under fire after studies indicated it is a potential carcinogen. Malachite green was outlawed in Chilean aquaculture in 1995, but enforcement is lax and importation of an industrial-strength version containing heavy metals is permitted. "It’s like cocaine," says Cardenas. "It’s illegal, but everybody uses it."