Where Salmon Is King

Near the southern tip of Chile, the Andes Mountains tumble spectacularly into the sea. These are some of the purest waters on the planet. Yet wherever you look in this distant region, you can't help noticing clusters of nets, buoys and platforms dotting the stunning coastline.

Thinking of having fish for dinner?

If salmon is on your menu it most likely came from here.

Those nets, buoys and platforms are called salmoneras. The best translation: salmon farms.

If you think the fish you buy at your local supermarket is caught by fishermen with big nets and long lines, look closely at the label. It likely says it came from a fish farm.

Aquaculture — or fish farming — is the farming of the future. The world's oceans simply can't supply enough wild fish to meet the demands of the 21st century. In a few years, half of the fish the world consumes will come from fish farms.

Most of the salmon the world eats already does. Only 30 percent of the salmon eaten today is caught in the wild.

To see the future of the world's fisheries up close we flew almost 5,000 miles south from Miami to Santiago, Chile and then to the fishing town of Puerto Montt where the salmon industry is centered. We then drove even further south. As we did it seemed that every bay, fjord and protected inlet in this magnificent landscape is dotted with the nets of salmoneras.

Rodrigo Infante, the general manager of the trade group SalmonChile, was our guide at one of the most modern farms, where close to a million young salmon are being fattened for market. We clambered into a small outboard motor boat for the short ride to the farm dock.

The first thing that strikes you as you walk past the salmon pens is the sound of salmon splashing in the water. Then you notice their silvery skin flying through the air. After being hatched in fresh water, small salmon "smolts" are transferred to these saltwater pens to be fed and fattened for market. It takes about 18 months.

There are close to 1,000 salmon farms like this along the coast, which is impressive when you learn that the industry didn't exist here just 25 years ago.

There's a very good reason: Salmon did not live below the equator until man brought them here.

"It has to do with the natural conditions," says Infante. "Because you have cold water, because you have fjords, islands and places where you can locate all the infrastructure; because you have the availability of fish meal and fish oil that is harvested in the northern part of Chile; because close by we have fresh water and salt water: the two stages that salmon need to develop."

In short, the conditions here mirror the salmon's natural habitat in Norway and the Pacific Northwest.

And there's an abundant supply of cheap labor.

Where Farmed Salmon Is Becoming King

Today salmon has become Chile's third-largest export. A $2 billion industry for this developing country, it is responsible for more than 50,000 jobs on farms and in processing factories.

We also visited the giant factory owned by AquaChile on the outskirts of Puerto Montt. Truckloads of ice-filled plastic containers bring the salmon from the saltwater farms to the plant door.

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