Salmon Chile Value-Added Warner Hanson TV

Editor’s note: SeafoodSource Contributing Editor Ross Anderson participated in a tour of Chile’s farmed salmon industry earlier this month. He lives in Port Townsend, Wash. 

Just four years after a devastating outbreak of infectious salmon anemia (ISA), Chilean salmon farmers are expecting a new production record in 2012 — more than 700,000 metric tons (round-weight) of Atlantic and Pacific salmon. ?Ricardo Grunwald, chairman of the trade group Salmon of the Americas, made the projection during a tour of the Chilean farmed salmon industry earlier this month.

Farmed salmon companies based in Puerto Montt expect to produce 350,000 metric tons of Atlantic salmon, 200,000 metric tons of trout (steelhead) and 150,000 metric tons of coho this year. This represents a dramatic shift from earlier production that was dominated by Atlantic salmon.

Nearly 30 years of dramatic production growth in southern Chile was interrupted in 2008 when the ISA virus was discovered in net pens around Chiloe Island, an aquaculture area south of Puerto Montt. Atlantic salmon production, which had been growing at an average rate of 25 percent per year, peaked at 650,000 metric tons in 2008.

Two years later, that total had been halved, as producers harvested fish early or shut down operations altogether to clear the waters of the virus.

While the ISA virus appears to have arrived with salmon eggs imported from Norway, critics both inside and outside the industry blamed it on the exponential growth, which led to overcrowded pens that created an environment susceptible to the virus.

“We weren’t paying attention to the long-term effects of these mega-farms,” said Adolfo Alvial, a highly respected marine biologist and consultant who has worked with the industry for three decades.

However, the industry has recovered with amazing speed. Many farms switched to coho and trout, which are less vulnerable to the virus. New government regulations were imposed, with industry support, halving the density at fish farms and instituting a broad range of bio-security measures designed to prevent the spread of any future outbreaks.

The number of farms in the Puerto Montt area has been frozen, and any future development will take place in areas further south, said Alvial.

“We were so arrogant,” he explained. “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.’”

Fortunately, he said, the same entrepreneurial spirit that fueled the rapid growth of the industry has been marshaled to respond to the crisis, allowing the farms to recover and set new production records in less than four years.

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