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Oceana Magazine Winter 2009: Trouble in Paradise

Unsanitary conditions and rampant antibiotic use threaten Chile's salmon aquaculture industry -- and one of the world's most beautiful places

By Suzannah Evans

In hundreds of underwater cages off the serrated coast of Chile, much of the world's farmed salmon gets its start: bumping against siblings, eating processed fish pellets, fattening for weeks until workers haul the fish ashore, bound for dinner plates around the world.

Chile quickly established itself as a major producer of farmed salmon in the last decade, growing 25 percent a year between 2003 and 2006. Its biggest customer is the United States, which purchases around 77 percent of Chile's fresh salmon exports.

But in the past year, Chile's salmon aquaculture industry has been rocked by disease, highlighting the need for better management of the world's second largest producer of farmed salmon before it expands into Patagonia, potentially soiling the pristine fjords.

In 2008, an outbreak of infectious salmon anemia (ISA) dealt a blow to the rapidly expanding industry. This highly contagious virus is deadly to fish. News of the outbreak worried consumers worldwide, and the major U.S. grocery chain Safeway ended purchases of salmon from Marine Harvest, the largest aquaculture company in Chile.

"Farmed salmon are susceptible to disease due to the cramped conditions they live in," said Cristián Gutiérrez, a campaigner in Oceana's Santiago office. "Chilean salmon are packed too tightly in pens, about 55 pounds of fish per cubic meter on average, making it easy for disease to spread both to the farmed fish and the native wild fish."

In an effort to maintain density while staving off disease, Chilean salmon farmers pump their fish full of antibiotics at a rate of 300 times the amount used in Norway, the world's largest salmon producer. One class of antibiotics, known as quinolones, is not approved for use in animals in the United States, despite the fact that most of the fish are headed there.

The World Health Organization recommends that quinolones be used for treatment only in humans because widespread use of the potent antibiotics could lead to bacterial resistance, therefore weakening one of our strongest defenses against disease. One well-known quinolone, Cipro, was used to treat victims of anthrax attacks in the United States in 2001.

"The rampant use of antibiotics, quinolones in particular, in Chilean salmon is irresponsible on a global scale," said Alex Muñoz, Vice President for Oceana in South America. "Norway has already demonstrated that more responsible farming with lower antibiotic rates is possible. Chile must step up its regulations."

Led by Muñoz, Oceana is working with the Chilean government to end the excessive use of antibiotics in salmon. Oceana has already succeeded in persuading the government to consider severely limiting antibiotics, prohibiting their prophylactic use on salmon aquaculture, increasing management transparency and reducing the number of salmon per pen.

But salmon aquaculture still portends other environmental challenges for Chilean waters.

Because salmon are carnivorous fish, farming them in high density puts significant pressure on wild fish stocks. It can take up to 10 pounds of wild fish to produce one pound of farmed salmon. These wild fish suffer from overfishing and, removed from the food web, cannot feed their natural predators, such as sea lions, dolphins and whales.

Intense aquaculture also creates dead zones devoid of vegetation and other life due to the amount of fish food and feces dumped into the surrounding waters. And when farmed fish escape - and they do, at a rate of up to four million fish a year - they threaten wild fish populations through predation, competition for food, hybridization and disease.

Chile's rapidly expanding aquaculture industry has already severely polluted and infested waters in the Los Lagos region of the country. Having ruined ecosystems in that area, producers have set their sights farther south, to the fjords of Chile's famed Patagonia region.

"Oceana strongly opposes any southward expansion of the aquaculture industry until we get it cleaned up," Muñoz said. "Chile cannot afford to ruin Patagonia, one of the world's natural treasures."


Oceana's Expedition to Tortel

The deep, coldwater fjords of Patagonia in southern Chile comprise a remote wilderness that appears more likely to host a migrating whale than a multinational industry. That could change, however, as Chile's troubled salmon aquaculture industry sets its sights on the area.

Caleta Tortel was accessible only by water and air until a road was built in 2003. The town of 500 residents was founded in the 1950s to harvest the surrounding cypress forests, and that legacy shows itself in the town's stilt houses and interlocking wooden walkways in the place of roads. Tortel sits between two of Patagonia's massive ice fields, comprising the largest reserves of fresh water in the world.
This pristine area's untouched biodiversity faces threats from the southward movement of Chile's aquaculture industry. Currently, the government is considering nearly tripling the area covered by salmon farms in the region to 30,000 acres, a move that would increase pollution, threaten wild fish populations and hamper tourist opportunities.

In November, Oceana conducted an expedition to study the marine wildlife of Tortel and the surrounding fjords. The team of scientists and photographers documented the waters in a rare opportunity to observe an unspoiled ecosystem.

Oceana is working with the government of Chile and the people of Tortel to establish a marine protected area over 5.3 million acres of ocean to ensure the protection of this scientifically and culturally significant area.