Chilean salmon farming plays an important role on numerous geographical scales. Globally, salmon aquaculture now accounts for over one-third of all farmed salmon produced. If you live in the United States and consume Atlantic salmon, it has most likely come from Chile or Norway (the world’s top producer).
Within Chile, salmon is the country’s second largest export behind copper. In 2015, the salmon farming industry represented a 3.5 billion dollar industry for the country.
The economic importance of the industry is felt the most powerfully in the regions of Los Lagos, Aysén, and Magellanes, where salmon aquaculture employs over 30,000 people. In these regions, the unemployment rate is up to half the national average.
The fact that Chile out-farms all but one other country with respect to salmon is made even more impressive by the fact that industrial salmon farming in Chile is only 30 years old. The industry’s growth has been virtually instantaneous; a marriage of cheap labor, good environmental conditions, and importable technology from other salmon farming countries. Naturally, this success has not come without significant challenges and problems. Chilean salmon farming has come under significant fire from the international community and within the country itself. Antibiotics usage, environmental degradation, and aquatic diseases have been hot button issues since the late 90’s. One of my motivations for coming to Chile was to understand how the industry has changed followed almost total collapse from a viral outbreak in 2007.
The resulting history of aquaculture in the country is a multi-faceted and highly complex mosaic of experiences. But where does the story begin? What major events have brought Chilean aquaculture into its current form? Who have been the major stakeholders? And, the eternal question, why am I here? What have I hoped to learn, what came as an unexpected addition?
As a country, Chile’s coastline is just as (if not more) significant than its landmass. A thin strip of land that extends over 5600 kilometers from the 17th parallel down to the 56th, Chile is home to a dizzying array of climates ranging from salt flats and desserts to Antarctic islands. However, of the 15 regions that compose Chile, it is the southernmost 3 – Los Lagos, Aysén, and Magellanes – that are most important in the history of Chilean salmon aquaculture.
These regions’ cool, highly oxygenated waters meet salmon’s stringent biological requirements and in 1905, Chile received its first importation of live salmonid eggs (both salmon and rainbow trout) in an effort to try and introduce the fish into its waterways.
Salmon eggs in modern, state of the art hatching facilities hatch under environmental conditions mirroring their natural environments as closely as possible. This means total darkness (unless you want to “sneak in” to take a quick pic), and in cool, fresh running water (no higher than 10 degrees centigrade). From initial spawning to fully hatched takes, on average about two months. However this time can be manipulated by lowering the temperature to slow growth.
It was not until almost 70 years later, in 1974, when the first trout farm, La Sociedad Pesquera, opened in Lake Llanquihue. 6 years later, Fundación Chile, a private not-for-profit, started the company Salmones Antártica S.A. and began farming Atlantic salmon using industrial technology in the Aysén region. This farm was the first proof-of-concept venture to demonstrate the viability of a salmon farming industry in the country. The farm, and Fundación Chile more generally, are considered the catalysts that open the floodgates for further growth. After selling Salmones Antártica to Japanese investors, Fundación Chile started several other fish farms as well as food processing and distribution companies.
The atlantic salmon (latin: salmo salar) is native to the east coast of North America and the west coast of northern Europe. It belongs to the family salmonidae which includes
pacific salmons (chinook, coho, etc.) as well as Rainbowhead trout. (As an aside, Chile is the world’s 3rd largest producer of rainbow trout.)
The next two decade resulted in an astronomical boom in salmon aquaculture. In 1985 1,200 tons of salmon were produced. Nine years later, this figure had jumped to 100,000 tons. A nearly ten thousand-fold increase. In the early 2000’s production broke half a million tons. Chile imported a great deal of technology and production knowledge from other salmon-farming countries in a sort of “cut-and-paste” fashion, but because production costs were significantly lower there than in Norway, Canada, or the UK, Chile could carve out a significant part of the global market by exporting salmon at competitive prices.
Unfortunately Chile’s dizzying ascension to become a global salmon-farming powerhouse hit roadbumps along the way. An aquatic external parasite, caligus rogercresseyi (common name: sea lice), that exists naturally in Chilean waterways was found to preferentially parasitize the non-native salmonids. Salmon with sea lice will swim against, or headfirst, into the net cages to try and scrape off the parasites resulting in scale loss, fin damage, and lower market value. Chilean sea lice can also act as vectors for the transfer of the bacteria P. salmonis which infect fish and cause piscirickettsiosis. Mortality rates for infected fish can reach over 90%. These threats, exacerbated by intensive farming practices (high stocking densities, year-round farming, heavy antibiotic usage), caused significant losses to the industry.
Despite these setbacks, the industry continued to grow consistently. It was not until 2007, when a viral outbreak of Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA, viral agent: ISAv) brought the industry to near collapse. Although ISAv had been detected in Chile prior to 2007, it had not caused such dramatic losses as in other countries. The ISA crisis, as it is commonly called, stands out as a perhaps the most prominent event in the history of Chilean salmon farming. ISAv causes anemia in Atlantic salmon (the primary species farmed in Chile). The gills begin to turn grey and fish swim near the surface gulping for water. In other instances, the fish will swim and feed normally before suddenly dying. In infected farms, mortality can reach 100%.
In late July of 2007, two farming sites in central Chiloé (Los Lagos region) were diagnosed with ISAv. Within a few weeks the virus was reported at over 30 farms. Within the year, the virus had spread to all three farming regions of Chile affecting over 93 farms. Infected fish were eliminated (over 11,000 tons) and farms were mandated to lie fallow to prevent the spread of the disease. The crisis extended into future production as well, severely limiting the amount of small fish that could be brought to open farm sites. In 2009, the total number of fish transferred to sea farm sites decreased by over 90% of from 2006/2007 values. Hatcheries (inland sites where salmon eggs were hatched and raised up to ~200 grams) throughout the regions were closed. Various estimates place industry losses at over US$ 883 million and over 20,000 jobs were lost.
Although Chile had surpassed Scotland as the 2nd largest salmon producer in the early 90’s, it is perhaps the ISA crisis that brought the industry into popular culture on the global stage. A March 27th, 2008 article in the New York Times detailed the ISA virus outbreak, and subsequent farm quarantines and closures. As Dr. Jonathan Barton, a researcher at the Pontifica Universidad Católica de Chile, put it “Effectively, the Chilean industry was being challenged by a well respected and widely read daily newspaper
in its largest market.”So this crisis, like the industry itself, engaged stakeholders on a variety of levels ranging from the highly local infected farms to the global markets being supplied.
In the decade that has followed the 2007 ISA crisis, the industry landscape has changed substantially. Environmental legislature has been strengthened, and monitoring programs more stringent. Stocking densities are strictly capped and all farms must now remain fallow between each growing season. A diverse range of research centers spanning both public and private institutions are all tackling severe knowledge gaps in basic biology. Knowledge transfer between Norway and Chile is so well established that almost every Chilean researcher I’ve interacted with has visited, worked, or studied in the country. The industry still faces big complications. Antibiotic resistance, red tides (highly damaging coastal events that can load commercially important shellfish with toxins), and a host of diseases continue to plague Chilean salmon farming. But it is improving, that is important to understand. The nascent salmon farming industry that exploded under unregulated governmental/research conditions is, at the very least, now occupying a more mature research and legislative infrastructure. It is complicated, to say the least.
Of course, 2.5 months has been enough for the most fleeting of experiences. I could have dedicated an entire year to unpacking the aquacultural landscape of Chile. So naturally, the title of this post is a nod to my own limitations in understanding the complexity. What has been indispensable during this time has been meeting with people who are both passionate about their work and open about the challenges the industry currently faces. It has given me the tools to acknowledge the immense imperfections of the industry while still feeling hopeful. That is, I have a much better sense of what it means to advocate for a flawed system of food production, not as it is, but as what it might become with enough effort and commitment.