Chile's trout farmers defend antibiotic use after Seafood Watch downgrading

Researchers examining a salmon as part of studies of Chilean aquaculture.

Chilean salmon farmers are defending the use of antibiotics in their salmon and trout farming operations after the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program downgraded some rainbow trout farms in the region in its sustainability ranking to “Red” (Avoid) from “Yellow” (Good Alternative) due to escapes and high use of antimicrobials.

A release from the Chilean Salmon Council – a trade group comprised of AquaChile, Australis, Cermaq, Mowi and Salmones Aysén, representing more than half of the salmon production in Chile – pointed out that Chilean salmon farmers have made strides to reduce their use of antibiotics, including research efforts, public-private partnerships, development of new treatments, and fighting emerging diseases and algae blooms caused by climate change.

Seafood Watch downgraded the rating of rainbow trout grown at select farms singled out for their high use of antimicrobials and pesticides, as well as the release of effluents and numerous fish escapes. The farms cited by the program are located in Chile’s key fish-farming regions of Los Lagos and Aysén and in the southern Magallanes region. The farms in the Los Lagos region treated rainbow trout 1.17 times per site per year with antimicrobials listed as highly important for human medicine by the World Health Organization – potentially contributing to antimicrobial resistance. The farms in Aysén averaged 1.27 treatments per site per year.

“Determining the origin, drivers, and scale of resistance is challenging, and this is an active area of research in Chile,” the recently released Seafood Watch report said. “Still, the widespread, repetitive, and prolonged use of antimicrobials on rainbow trout (and Atlantic salmon) farms likely contributes to resistance. In addition, large-scale escape events and trickle losses continue to occur.”

Meanwhile, in Chile’s Region XII of Magallanes, “the carrying capacity of Chile’s fjords and the cumulative effluent impacts of the salmonid industry are not well understood," Seafood Watch said. 

"Effluent impacts on the seabed can be substantial, and compliance with impact thresholds is poor in Region XII, which is particularly concerning given the ongoing expansion of production,” it said.

In all three regions, “escaped farmed trout pose a high risk to wild, native species through predation and resource competition,” it said.

Salmon Council Executive Director Loreto Seguel said Chile’s salmon producing companies are making progress in reducing their use of antibiotics and do not abuse them.

“Today, progress is being made in the control of SRS and other emerging diseases through the promotion and support of scientific research, the promotion of new practices and innovations in procedures, the search for non-drug treatments and new vaccines, together with the generation of more robust public-private partnerships,” she said.

Seguel, who assumed her position on 1 December, pointed to several instances of such cooperation, including the Pincoy Project, a collaborative initiative working to reduce antibiotic use in the Chilean salmon industry. The project is being supported by Aquabench, which is providing informational analysis of and technical support under the “Proyecto Control del SRS” (SRS Control Project).

Seguel also pointed to the fact that all Salmon Council member companies have Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) certification for farming centers and processing plants. The ASC mark is among the most prestigious worldwide, and its high environmental standard allows for the use of drug treatments in limited amounts.

Additionally, several members of the Chilean Salmon Council have joined the Program for the Optimized Use of Antimicrobials in Salmon Farming. Dubbed PROA/Salmon, the program is a government initiative that seeks to maintain a progressive decrease in the use of these treatments in Chile’s salmon production. The initiative is led by Sernapesca, Chile's aquaculture authority, which also heads up the “SRS Workgroup” with the aim of updating the country's surveillance and control program for the disease.

The Salmon Council also called attention to the fact that “a large part of the industry” adheres to the Seafood Watch for Aquaculture program and its special program for Chile, the Chilean Salmon Antibiotic Reduction Program (CSARP), which seeks to reduce the use of antibiotics in salmon. The initiative aims at the conservation of the oceans through research and evaluation of the environmental impacts of products from aquaculture.

“In the medium- and long-term, the diversity of these work areas should show positive results and high sustainability. Beyond the specific data of one year, we are working to advance a downward trend in the use of antibiotics in Chilean salmon farming,” Seguel said. “All this is done within a framework of greater transparency, since our salmon farming industry is the only animal protein producer in Chile that discloses its figures in this matter.”

The Aquaculture Stewardship Council clarified the Seafood Watch downgrade doesn’t apply to farms in Chile with ASC certification, which are still recommended by Seafood Watch with a “Buy” (Good Alternative) rating. At the same time, ASC CEO Chris Ninnes said his organization believes Chile's aquaculture industry has work to do to improve its environmental performance.

“As an industry, we are not near the finish line. Greenwashing hampers progress and prevents finding real solutions to the challenges that arise with aquaculture’s inevitable expansion,” he said. “The status quo simply won’t be enough to get us to a meaningful place. Much work is still needed to demonstrate true responsibility in caring for the well-being of the environment, the seafood being raised and the individuals who produce and consume it.”

ASC said its certification provides the most-rigorous aquaculture standards and enforcement when it comes to antibiotics and pesticides use, fish escapes, and environmental impact on surrounding oceans. It said its certification begins at the farm level and extends to verifying custody of certified seafood throughout the supply chain, including tracking mass balance, making unannounced seafood farm inspections, and requiring strict usage controls around ASC’s certification label on packaging.

“ASC is taking the lead in pushing for higher standards, new technology and innovation, tougher rules for transparency, and increased traceability,” Ninnes said.

Regarding the continued “buy” certification for specific farms, despite Seafood Watch red-listing the areas in which those fish are raised, the ASC recalled a similar situation from December 2021 when Atlantic salmon produced on ASC-certified farms in British Columbia, Canada, were recommended as “Buy” option despite the region’s overall Seafood Watch ratings falling from yellow to red. This recommendation remains in effect, the ASC said.  

Photo courtesy of the Chilean Salmon Council


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