Chile cleans up its salmon farming industry

Published on
September 21, 2016

A sea change is underway in Chile, as the government and industry are working together to reduce the amount of antibiotics used in salmon farming in the South American country.

A few weeks ago, Chile announced a USD 58 million (EUR 51.9 million) package, dubbed the “Pincoy salmon industry initiative,” designed to cut the amount of antibiotics its aquaculture industry uses in raising salmon by half over two years.

This is good news for everyone, as the salmon industry’s heavy use of antibiotics has long been the subject of fierce criticism from environmentalists and a major source of concern for consumers over potential residues in the fish they eat.

News of the initiative came as Chile’s National Service of Fisheries and Aquaculture (Sernapesca) revealed that use of antibiotics in 2015 was higher than it had been for almost a decade. This wake-up call led industry leaders to realize that it was time to take a different approach, and to take steps to shed the industry’s poor image.

Chile is the second-largest salmon producer after Norway, and salmon from Chile is sold all over the world. Top export destinations include the United States (which imports more than 90 percent of its seafood), Japan, Russia and Brazil. Chile’s annual salmon sales top USD 3.5 billion (EUR 3.1 billion), and salmon farming in Chile keeps 70,000 people in work, thereby ensuring that the industry is key to the country’s economy.

According to Alfredo di Tello, head of Intesal, the technological arm of SalmonChile, antibiotics are currently necessary to tackle salmonid rickettsia septicaemia (SRS), a bacterial disease that costs the industry more than USD 700 million (EUR 625 million) per year, or USD 0.07 (EUR 0.06) for every kilogram of salmon farmed.

The initiative is backed by the major feed and pharmaceutical companies involved in Chile, by industry association SalmonChile, and the fisheries inspectorate. Its aim is to reduce dependence on antibiotics through improved use of vaccines, selective breeding techniques, superior diets and better screening.

"This is a holistic approach, that looks at preventive aspects as well as genetic factors and functional foods, all of which are designed to strengthen the health of the fish," said Sernapesca's Alicia Gallardo.

Ronald Barlow, general manager of feed supplier Skretting Chile, believes that by improving fish health, the project will also help to boost industry productivity levels. In 2015, Chile produced 846,000 metric tons of salmon, while Norway produced 1,314,584 metric tons – with minimal use of antibiotics.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific, the Hong Kong Economic Journal has just published a damning editorial on the state of the global salmon industry, using out-of-date facts designed to put consumers off eating salmon.

Writer Lau Cheung called on the Hong Kong government’s Food and Environmental Hygiene Department and the Consumer Council to offer citizens more information about the safety of salmon available in local markets.

“There has been a lot of debate about food safety issues surrounding salmon, especially the farmed variety and in particular the use of antibiotics,” Cheung said. “Hong Kong imports from many different locations around the world and it would be good if we devoted some time to learning more about the health, as well as the environmental aspects, related to salmon farming.”

Besides citing the wrong reason for Chile’s heavy use of antibiotics, exaggerating heavy use of chemicals, and putting all the blame for wild salmon population fluctuations on sea lice transferred from farmed fish, Cheung also states that raising one metric ton of salmon requires three to five metric tons of forage fish, which is speeding up the depletion of wild stocks in the oceans.

The Global Salmon Initiative’s website shows the latest feed conversion ratio (FCR) at just 1.3: 1 (feed: fish) although individual feed and salmon companies cite figures even lower than this.

This figure also compares well against chicken, where the FCR is 1.9: 1 and pork, which convert at 2.8: 1. Fishmeal is used in feed for both chicken and pork.

The aquaculture industry is making great strides to improve its act across all aspects of marine farming, and is progressively using less marine ingredients in fish feed. However, the message is still not reaching the influencers, including the popular media and environmentalists, and mixed messages continue to reach the consumer.

While most consumers trust their supermarket, fishmonger and restaurant to source safe and sustainable seafood, there remain a good number of people for whom a single seed of doubt is enough to stop them purchasing salmon. This puts the onus firmly back on the salmon industry, with the message: “Must try harder!”

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