Food Safety News writer Ross Anderson recently toured Chilean fish farms and processing plants as a guest of Salmon of the Americas, a Chilean trade organization. This is the first of two reports.

Puerto Montt, Chile — Five years ago, while much of the world teetered toward an epic economic collapse, this bustling fishing port in southern Chile plunged into a crisis of its own. But, instead of a castrophic failure of banking and real estate, Chileans found themselves dealing with an invisible virus that had travelled literally from the opposite end of the earth.

chile-salmon-netpen-350.jpgIn just two short decades, enterprising Chileans had built a thriving, $3 billion-a-year aquaculture industry, growing salmon in floating pens, processing them in and around Puerto Montt, then shipping their prized fillets off to the US, Japan, Europe and beyond. But in 2007, those pens were infested with a lethal microbe that wiped out millions of fish and threatened to kill the industry.

Now those salmon farms are back; Chile expects a new production record this year – a staggering 700,000 metric tons of Atlantic and Pacific salmon. Along the way, enterprising fish farmers learned some essential lessons about the risks surrounding microbiology and the recurring “tragedy of the commons.”

For most of the 20th century, Puerto Montt was a small, ramshackle seaport perched on a verdant ledge between an inland Patagonian fjord and the dramatic volcanoes of the southern Andes. It’s a lush, rain-soaked region resembling the northwest coast, sparsely populated with the descendants of the native Mapuche natives and German immigrants who arrived in the first half of the 19th century.

Then, in the mid ’80s, Chile learned that their plankton-rich, inland waters were ideal habitat for salmon aquaculture – even though there were no native salmon runs in Patagonia or anywhere else in the southern hemisphere. Using eggs and technology imported from the U.S. and Norway, they hatched and grew juvenile fish in local freshwater lakes, then transferred them to floating netpens, many of them along the shores of rural Chilhoe Island, south of the port city.

Fueled initially by Japanese investment, dozens of huge fish farms sprouted along Patagonian shores. The industry grew at a phenomenal rate averaging 25 percent per year. In 1990, Chilean farms exported nearly $100 million worth of salmon to Japan, the US and Europe. By 2000, it was $1 billion. Six years later, it was $2 billion.

chile-costco-salmon2-350.jpgU.S. buyers included Walmart and Costco, both of which sold Chilean salmon by the truckload.

Puerto Montt became a boomtown, employing some 35,000 people at the farms, processing plants, and fish food factories that converted fish waste and other raw materials into pellets. Construction boomed as well, with processing plants, thousands of homes for newly arrived workers, and a modern office building with a two-story underground shopping mall.

“The growth was much faster than the government could keep up with,” says Carlos Odebret of Salmon Chile, a trade group for the industry. “The challenge was to bring people in from other parts of the country.”

As the profits mounted, the companies kept building more and more fish farms – steel grids, comprised of 10 or more pens per complex, adding up to floating farms that cover an area the size of three football fields.

But aquaculture experts and environmentalists worried that they were growing too fast, taking too many shortcuts with the complex science of fish farming. There were too many farms, packed with too many fish, and not enough biological precautions.

“Salmon farming is starting to transform the ecology and environment of southern Chile, with tens of millions of salmon living in vast ocean corrals,” wrote environmental writer Charles Fishman. “Who could have predicted that the mass forced farming of an exotic fish to please the Wal-Mart low-price palate would result in a horrific virus-borne plague?”

Adolfo Alvial, a softspoken marine biologist widely respected in the industry, worried that it was all happening too fast. In July, 2007, he took a job with Marine Harvest, one of the world’s biggest aquaculture companies. At his first meeting, he was told the company “has an ISA situation” at one of its farms.

Infectious salmon anemia, better known as “ISA” is a virus closely related to influenza. It does not affect humans, but it is lethal to salmon, and especially to the Atlantic salmon which dominated Chile’s fish farms. It had previously infected salmon farms in Norway and Scotland, but this was Chile’s first experience with the disease.

The ISA quickly became an epidemic. Millions of fish died, and millions more had to be destroyed in an attempt to prevent its spread.

The infected eggs probably came from Norway, but the epidemic was worsened by the fish-farmers’ rapid growth and lax standards.

More than 13,000 people lost their jobs, forcing many to pack up their families and migrate north in search of work. “So it was also a social crisis for the region,” says Odebret. “We didn’t understand how important our industry was to the community. Now we do.”

The low point came in 2010, when Atlantic salmon production dropped to half of its 2008 peak.

But the fish farmers have recovered remarkably fast, due to a combination of strategies. Among them:

– They shifted much of their production to Pacific salmon, Northwest coho and closely related steelhead trout, which are more resistant to ISA. The record 2012 exports will be comprised of half Atlantics and half Pacific species.

– The density of the farms has been cut by half, and the number of farms in the Puerto Montt region has been frozen; future development will occur in areas to the south where there has been limited aquaculture.

chile-salmon-sorting2-350.jpg– The aquaculture companies have adopted strict, new “bio-security” measures at the farms and processing plants. Individual farms are isolated from each other, with no movement of fish between them. At each stage in the process, workers wear disposable gowns and rubber boots with cleaning stations and foot disinfectant pools at critical points. The processing plants now resemble surgical wards, with workers draped completely in clean, disposable gear.

– With the support of the industry, the government has instituted strict new rules for fish farms, with more frequent inspections and biological monitoring.

– New hatcheries are coming on line using self-contained water supplies that are less subject to contamination.

Adolfo Alvial, who watched it all happen, believes the industry now understands the so-called “tragedy of the commons” – the economic principle that people who make their livings by exploiting a common resource do not have an incentive to take care of it. In the case of commercial fishing, that means fishermen will knowingly catch the last salmon because, if they don’t, somebody else will. In the case of aquaculture, it means fish farmers will keep producing more and more fish until the ecosystem collapses.

chile-salmon-glazing-350.jpg“We blamed the ISA virus on eggs imported from Norway,” Alvial says. “But the real problem was overcrowded conditions in our pens. We weren’t paying attention to the long term effects of these mega-farms.”

Scientists now understand that the oceans are made up of interrelated ecosystems. And any ecosystem has a carrying capacity, an ill-defined capacity for how much life can be sustained by the available food and oxygen.

“It’s human nature,” Alvial says. “We were so arrogant. This little country in South America showing the world how to build a world class aquaculture system. And we weren’t listening to the people who were telling us: You’re taking too many risks, not enough research, not enough regulation.

“So it may have started with a single lot of eggs from Norway, or a single boat or a single net… But we can’t blame our crisis on a few contaminated eggs. We have to blame it on our lack of knowledge of the carrying capacity.”

Fortunately, he says, the same entrepreneurial spirit that built the industry was marshaled to respond to the crisis. “We are a very opportunistic country.”

(Tomorrow: Farmed salmon vs. wild salmon – a religious question?)

Images courtesy WarnerHansen

Cover image: Millions of salmon are hatched in freshwater hatcheries and raised for the first few months before being transferred to floating saltwater pens.

Top to bottom images: 

1. The surface of a floating netpen boils with hungry salmon when automatic feeders spring into action, flinging food pellets out like a lawn sprinkler.

2. Individual salmon portions are prepared for freezing and vacuum packaging, bound for US markets.

3. Workers draped in sanitary outfits prepare salmon in a Puerto Mont-area processing plant.

4. Individual salmon portions are brined in preparation for smoking at a Chilean plant.

  • Danae in MD

    Thank you for this very informative and interesting article!

  • Carole

    Very interesting article. I look forward to more….

  • Grumiester

    I have never liked the idea of farm raised fish. This confirms many long held beliefs. I buy only wild caught fish and nothing from China.

    • Dr. G. Rand

      The waters in china are so toxic that even the wealthy Chinese buy fish from America

  • If you want to see how much environmental damage that fish farming does, Google: fish farm environmental damage. You will be reading for days.
    Fish farms want to be in the ocean so they can use them as free, open sewers. They need to be on land in closed containers.
    Go read:

  • Dan

    First, the top photo is of a mussel farm, not salmon. Second, it is my understanding that most salmon operators continue to seriously over-stock their pens, as the industry’s financing is based on this original (and obviously unsustainable) practice. Third, it is a shame that the primary response has been simply to move the farms to ever more remote locations, with an even greater carbon footprint. The adverse impacts (both ecological and socially) are simply being exported to some of the most pristine areas of the planet. Finally, the shift back to Pacific species (which, unlike Atlantic salmon, cannot be harvested all year) only increases the negative impact of diverting Chilotes from their long-established, and diversified, socioeconomic practices to an underpaid, seasonal cash economy, with its “booms and busts”.

  • I have been living in Chile next to fish farms for more than 22 years, and they are nothing more than the equivalent of giant floating hog farms, another CAFO,( Confined Animal Feeding Operations) like chicken factories,cattle feedlots, and the aforementioned pig farms. Cities, for that matter, are similar as human feedlots which rely on concentrated inputs of food to feed packed and crowded conditions of people (or animals, OR FISH). What we have is a concentration of wastes that use the vector of water to spread pollutants and effectively produce this intentional over eutrophication of the ocean with all its negative side effects. The list of other ills is as long as your arm.
    In the end, there is no right way to do the wrong thing. Fish farming and all CAFOs need to be abolished and in their place good ecological management on both land and in the water replace this type of production. That is not what the producers and their handmaidens in government want to hear, but the unintentional negative side effects of the human technological hubris has been seen and experienced enough to know that this is nothing more than one more example of the arrogance of humanism and its belief that ‘technological innovation’ will find and lead a way out off the massive and ever growing eco-social crisis we all find ourselves ensnared.
    The book CAFO, The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories and its corresponding will bring anyone up a good distance on the learning curve to understand this issue. A quick click on the website will get one started.After that you will think twice every time you buy meat or fish to know its origins and to know if you are complicit in the continuation of a food production practice that is bad for nature, other species as well as humanity itself. This article is a lightweight and superficial description of what is a major problem world wide, and not just in Chile although the salmon farming industry in Chile is as toxic as it gets.
    Douglas Tompkins

    • Sabe_Moya

      There is nothing that has been as toxic for Chile as Douglas Tompkins.

  • Ripit

    Certainly avoid purchasing anything, ANYTHING from China no matter what the added cost is to you.