A GENERATION ago, Puerto Montt, the last town before southern Chile breaks up into a myriad of islands and fjords, was such a dead place that wags changed its prefix to “Muerto” Montt. Nowadays it is booming, thanks to salmon farming, an industry that last year produced $2.2 billion in export revenues. That makes Chile the world’s second-largest exporter of salmon after Norway. But some people worry that the industry has grown too fast for its own good.
Output is now stagnating, mainly because of the prevalence of diseases among the fish. These include infectious salmon anaemia, a virus that first appeared in Norway in the 1980s but from which Chile had remained free until last year. As if that was not enough, a report in the New York Times in March suggested that antibiotic and hormone residues could make Chilean salmon unsafe to eat.
The industry vigorously denies this—and it may well be right. But its defence has been impeded by a lack of hard data. For example, the National Fisheries Service, the government regulator, keeps no national register of the quantity of antibiotics administered to salmon in their feed.
Hitherto, the evidence has been that Chilean salmon is no worse than other farmed fish—and may be better. Importers have occasionally rejected shipments because of traces of malachite green, a forbidden fungicide, and, on one occasion in Japan, because of excess antibiotic residues.
But a study by American and Canadian scientists published in Science in 2004 found that the Chilean fish contained significantly lower levels of contaminants such as PCBs and dioxins than European salmon (although more than wild salmon). That was probably because Chilean fishmeal, used as feed, comes from cleaner waters.
Fundación Terram, a Chilean environmental outfit, supports the industry’s claim that it doesn’t use hormones. It agrees that the farms cease to administer antibiotics well before harvesting the salmon, as food-safety regulations in importing countries require. José Miguel Burgos of Aquagestión, one of several inspection laboratories in Puerto Montt, says that it is very difficult for the farms to befool the system of mandatory pre-harvest analysis of antibiotic residues. Aquagestión’s tests mainly follow American norms, which ban residues of all but one antibiotic.
Nevertheless, antibiotics are used far more heavily in Chile than in Norway. That is partly to fight salmonid rickettsial septicaemia, a deadly infection widespread in Chile for which vaccines are only now being tested. But industry sources concede that managers at the farms, whose pay depends partly on keeping more fish alive, tend to overdose them on antibiotics. Sticking to recommended doses would cut their use significantly, reckons César Barros, the president of SalmonChile, the industry association. He wants maximum doses to be written into regulations.
Cutting reliance on antibiotics further requires preventing diseases from spreading. The industry argues that rationalising the permit system would help in this. Chilean farms are closer together and more densely stocked than their Norwegian counterparts. As the industry has grown, companies have acquired sites in several different places. They would like to be able to swap permits, to consolidate their operations in a single bay. They say this would enable sites to be left fallow for longer periods, allowing residues to disperse.
A team from the United States’ Food and Drug Administration recently inspected Chilean salmon farms. Chile’s government has set up a working group to look into the industry’s problems. Tighter production limits may have to be set for individual farms. All sides agree that the fisheries service needs more resources.
These problems come at a difficult time: high fuel prices and the appreciation of the Chilean peso against the dollar mean that most producers will lose money this year, according to Mr Barros. But Chile’s salmon farmers still have other advantages, including plenty of room to expand in clean waters and cheaper labour than competitors elsewhere. Provided it cleans up parts of its act, the salmon industry should still have a profitable future.