Looking out over the low green mountains jutting through miles of placid waterways here in southern Chile, it is hard to imagine that anything could be amiss. But beneath the rows of neatly laid netting around the fish farms just off the shore, the salmon are dying.
A virus called infectious salmon anemia, or ISA, is killing millions of salmon destined for export to Japan, Europe and the United States. The spreading plague has sent shivers through Chile’s third-largest industry, which has left local people embittered by laying off more than 1,000 workers.
It has also opened the companies to fresh charges from biologists and environmentalists who say that the breeding of salmon in crowded underwater pens is contaminating once-pristine waters and producing potentially unhealthy fish.
Some say the industry is raising its fish in ways that court disaster, and producers are coming under new pressure to change their methods to preserve southern Chile’s cobalt blue waters for tourists and other marine life.
“All these problems are related to an underlying lack of sanitary controls,” said Felipe Cabello, a microbiologist at New York Medical College in Valhalla that has studied Chile’s fishing industry. “Parasitic infections, viral infections, fungal infections are all disseminated when the fish are stressed and the centers are too close together.”
Industry executives acknowledge some of the problems, but they reject the notion that their practices are unsafe for consumers. American officials also say the new virus is not harmful to humans.
But the latest outbreak comes on top of a rash of non-viral illnesses in recent years that the companies acknowledge have led them to use high levels of antibiotics. Researchers say the practice is widespread in the Chilean industry, which is a mix of international and Chilean producers. Some of those antibiotics, they said, are not allowed for use on animals in the United States.
Many of those salmon are ending up in American grocery stores anyway, where about 29 percent of Chilean exports are destined. While fish from China have come under special scrutiny in recent months, here in Chile regulators have yet to form a registry that even tracks the use of the drugs, researchers said.
The new virus is spreading, but it has primarily affected the fish of Marine Harvest, a Norwegian company that is the world’s biggest producer of farm-raised salmon, which exports about 20 percent of the salmon that come from Chile.
Salmon produced in Chile by Marine Harvest end up in Costco and Safeway stores, among other major U.S. grocery retailers, said Torben Petersen, managing director of Marine Harvest here.
Arne Hjeltnes, the head spokesman in Oslo for Marine Harvest, said his company recognizes that antibiotic use is too high in Chile and that fish pens located too close together have contributed to the problems. He said Marine Harvest welcomes tougher environmental regulations.
“Some people have advocated that this industry is too good to be true,” Hjeltnes said. “But as long as everybody has been making lots of money and it has been going very well there has been no reason to take tough measures.” He called the current crisis “eye-opening” to the different measures that are needed.
On a recent visit to a port south of Puerto Montt, a warehouse contained hundreds of bags, some as large as 1,250 kilograms, or 2,750 pounds, filled with salmon food and medication. The bags – many of which were labeled “Marine Harvest” and “medicated food” for the fish – contained antibiotics and pigment as well as hormones to make the fish grow faster, said Adolfo Flores, the port director.
Environmentalists say the salmon are being farmed for export at the expense of almost everything else around. The equivalent of some three to five kilograms of fresh fish are required to produce one kilogram of farmed salmon, according to estimates.
Salmon feces and food pellets are stripping the water of oxygen, killing off other marine life and spreading disease, biologists and environmentalists say. Escaped salmon are eating other fish species and have begun invading rivers and lakes as far away as neighboring Argentina, researchers say.
“It is simply not possible to produce fish on an industrial scale in a sustainable way,” said Wolfram Heise, director of the marine conservation program at the Pumalin Project, a private conservation initiative in Chile. “You will never get it into ecological balance.”
When companies began breeding non-native Atlantic salmon here some two decades ago, salmon farming was seen as a godsend for this sparsely populated area of sleepy fishing towns and campgrounds.
The industry has grown eight-fold since 1990. Today it employs some 53,000 people either directly or indirectly. Marine Harvest currently operates the world’s largest “closed system” fish-farming facility at Rio Blanco, near Puerto Montt, where 35 million fish a year are raised until they weigh about 10 grams.
As the industry now abandons the region in search of uncontaminated waters elsewhere, local people are angry and worried about their future.
The salmon companies “are robbing us of our wealth,” said Victor Gutierrez, a fisherman from a town on the Gulf of Reloncavi, which is dotted with salmon farms. “They bring illnesses and then leave us with the problems.”
Since discovering the virus in Chile last July, Marine Harvest has closed 14 of its 60 centers and announced it would lay off 1,200 workers, or one-quarter of its Chilean operation. Since the company announced last month that it would move to a region farther south, the government has said the virus had spread there as well, in two separate outbreaks not involving Marine Harvest.
Industry officials say Chile is suffering similar growing pains to salmon farming operations in Norway, Scotland and the Faroe Islands, where the ISA virus, in a different form, struck previously.
Norway, the world’s leading salmon producer, eventually decided to spread salmon farms farther apart, reducing the stresses on the fish, and responded to criticism of high antibiotic use with stronger regulations and the development of vaccines.
Researchers in Chile say salmon farming’s problems go well beyond the latest virus. Their concerns mirror those of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, which heavily criticized Chile’s farm-fishing industry in a 2005 report.
The OECD said the industry needed to limit the escape of about one million salmon a year; control the use of fungicides like green malachite, a carcinogen that was prohibited in 2002; and better regulate the colorant used to make salmon more rosy, which has been associated with retina problems in humans. It also noted that Chile’s use of antibiotics was “excessive.” Officials at Sernapesca, Chile’s national fish agency, declined repeated interview requests for this article and did not respond to written questions submitted more than a week before publication.
But Cesar Barros, president of SalmonChile, the industry association, said, “We are working with the government to improve the situation.” He dismissed the broader criticism of sanitary conditions, saying there was no scientific evidence to support the claims. But researchers charge that the industry has been reluctant to fund scientific studies, which Chile sorely needs.
Residual antibiotics have been detected in Chilean salmon that have been exported to the United States, Canada and Europe, Cabello, the microbiologist, said. He estimated that some 70 to 300 times more antibiotics are used by salmon producers in Chile to produce a ton of salmon than in Norway.