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An rud bhios na do bhroin, cha bhi e na do thiomhnadh
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Guest Column, November 2003

Juan Carlos Cárdenas Núñez , Executive director of Centro Ecoceanos, Doctor in Veterinary Medicine(DVM). The Centro Ecoceanos is a non-governmental and non- profit organisation that promotes the protection of the oceans, sustainable fisheries and responsible aquaculture, grassroots motivation and the citizen oversight over public policies and practices. During the past 20 years Dr Cardenas has developed professional activities regarding marine conservation issues at different institutions and NGO’s, including:

Comité Nacional Pro Defensa de la Flora y Fauna (Codeff)
Chilean Antarctic Institute, INACH
Associated Researcher of the Chilean Natural History Museum
Latin America Regional Coordinator of the Greenpeace`s Ocean Ecology Campaign
Founded Centro Ecoceanos in 1998 and is its executive director and main researcher.

Has published 23 papers about marine conservation and 26 scientific reports.

The Salmon Farm Industry in Southern Chile: From Panacea to Pandora’s Box?

Juan Carlos Cárdenas, Chile’s leading environmentalist, on the big business interests behind the explosive development of Chile's damaging salmon farming industry.

Chile is the fifth largest country for total landings of marine resources and the second largest producer of fish-meal. With regards to salmon production, Chile is responsible for up to 35% of the global farmed salmon worldwide. Between 1987 and 2002 the intensive monoculture of salmon and trout species has experienced a spectacular growth in Chile.

As a consequence of weak health and environmental standards and a lack of strong enforcement of regulations, the salmon industry in Chile has contributed to the degradation of aquatic ecosystems during the last decades. Eutrophication, pH changes and severe modification on bacterial composition of the benthos are amongst the most significant impacts / effects already evidenced in the southern archipelagos, caused by faeces, undigested food and usage of high amounts of chemicals[1] in fresh and salt-water ecosystems.

Salmonids are alien species for southern hemisphere marine ecosystems, so there is always a high risk that their escape from cages to the wild (approximately 900,000 individuals per year) is seriously affecting not only native stocks but the ecosystems as a whole, being one of the most serious threats to the aquatic biodiversity.

Yet despite its environmental and social problems, salmon farming remains a booming business. As the captures of wild fisheries continues to push its natural limits, aquaculture corporations are expanding existing farms and seeking out new sites and market opportunities for their "pink pastures".

The salmon business is a global business, where the big players dominate trying to achieve "vertical integration of the value chain," producing fish-food pellets, cultivating market-size fish and distributing filets worldwide. At the end of this line stand the massive grocery chains that prefer to have contracts with one supplier large enough to fill their freezers.

Restaurateurs in Japan, USA and Europe loved the farm-raised Atlantic salmons, which allowed them to offer fresh salmon year-round. As demand increased, the transnational industry expanded to any site that offered cheap access to cold, sheltered salt water.

From the 1990s, the presence salmon farming corporations in Chile exploded, because farming corporations found cheaper labour and fewer environmental and labour restrictions than elsewhere. As a result, the cheap Chilean farm-raised Atlantic salmon rules the global premium fish market with Chilean filets hitting the Port of Miami at US $ 2 a pound, produced by workers making the minimal salary of $ 7.0 a day.

Salmon aquaculture has grown in huge bounds and faster than anything seen in traditional agriculture. This mega industry is out of scale, imposing a destructive industrial, social, economic and ethic composition in the rural and aqua - agrarian culture in the south of Chile.

Many people think that there is no way of reforming this industry, because of its logic of gigantism and the way companies devour each other in the competition for the control of the global markets. Any reform that does not aim to accelerate the process of economic concentration should be based on an ever-increasing energy conserving and efficient system to try to mitigate the negative side effects.

The recent case of shipments of Chilean farmed salmon contaminated with carcinogenic malachite in the Netherlands and the UK, or the retention of salmon exportations in Japan because of higher levels of antibiotics than the standards of this country allow, prove that the industry still has a long way to go before it can demonstrate it can develop in agreement with sustainable environmental standards.

Regarding effects on public health, the use of malachite green in aquaculture in Chile has been prohibited since 1997. However, many Chilean salmon companies still continue using this substance in order to eliminate fungus from their fish farming centres. However, Chile has no regulation on antibiotic use, as other countries such as Norway, Canada and the USA. Antibiotic use is growing as the salmon industry grows. It reached a peak in the year 2000, when 500 tonnes of antibiotics were used.

In addition to the uncontrolled use of antibiotics[2], other chemicals, prohibited substances and the like, there is another concerning issue arising, which is the utilisation of chemical colorants which are added to salmon feed. Some of them have been associated with eyesight problems and reactions in chemical-sensitive people.

The present conflicts in the Chilean southern archipelagos is part of an emerging global environmental battle over high-intensity fish farming. Environmentalists, coastal communities and the artisan fishermen in south of Chile are calling for the consumers awareness concerning the negatives impacts of Chile's rapidly expanding salmon-farm industry.

This problem is a global concern in salmon industry terms, and a time bomb in ecological terms. A realistic answer I believe is to develop a more participative and well informed citizen and consumer movement, with the goals to revitalise the ocean’s natural abundance and diversity and develop an economy to human scale that respects the natural limits and the cultural and biological diversity.

[1] Malachite green, disinfectants, antifouling paintings and antibiotics, among other chemicals.

[2] A study performed by Dr. Felipe Cabello in 2003 concludes that excessive antibiotic use could produce alterations in marine ecology. Chile may be using as much as 75 to 200 times the quantity of antibiotic per tonne of salmon produced, compared to Norway. With respect to aquaculture, the ecological alterations produced by massive use of antibiotics in aquatic environments, along with the genetic plasticity of bacteria and viruses, could both generate and facilitate the dissemination of bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

By: Centro Ecoceanos / Chile E-mail: ecoceanos@ecoceanos