Where Salmon Is King

To enter the plant we donned sterile clothing, boots, hair caps and face masks. Inside the salmon are gutted, cleaned, de-boned, skinned and readied for shipment to market in the United States and elsewhere. They even smoke salmon here. We saw workers slicing, weighing and filling packages for Safeway stores in California. Others were preparing cartons of salmon filets for the Japanese market.

Today Chile produces almost as much salmon as Norway. In just a few years Chile will be surpass Norway and become world's largest salmon producer.

An Industry 'Out of Control'?

But some are not celebrating. The World Wildlife Fund is so concerned about the explosion of fish farming around the world that it now has a full-time staff working to monitor the impacts. Eighty percent of fish farms are in developing countries in Latin America and Asia.

"This is an industry [that] has grown very rapidly," says American Dave Tecklin, who heads up the World Wildlife Fund's Chile operation. "It has created wealth. It is changing the region. But like any large natural resource industry it has major impact and that's what we're concerned about."

The concern is the damage to the ocean waters and the ocean floor. Fish droppings and leftover feed can smother the fragile plants and animals below. To critics the salmoneras are like giant hog farms dumping sewage on the fragile ocean coast.

"In a modern farm now you have a million fish which are being fed fish meal," says Tecklin, "and the feces that they generate then is similar to a small town. These are large animals concentrated in a small spot."

The industry's critics say that as a developing country Chile is too eager to see job growth at the expense of the environment and labor standards. According the Chilean environmental group Ecoceanos, more than 30 salmon industry workers have died or fallen into the ocean and disappeared on the job in the last two years.

And even by local standards, the jobs pay very poorly.

"The problem is that right now there isn't any way to control the industry," says Dr. Juan Carlos Cardenas, executive director of Ecoceanos. "We can say that the salmon farm industry in Chile is out of control."

Cardenas says Norwegian companies that operate with good environmental and labor standards at home apply different standards in Chile.

"It's very funny," says Cardenas with more than a hint of irony, "because the multinational companies apply a double standard. In their own countries the standards are very high, but in Chile the standard is low."

Government oversight is simply not as thorough here as it is in northern countries. The major salmon producers insist they are working hard to address the environmental issues, implementing a clean water standard.

Today the most modern farms use an elaborate system of feed tubes to send the feed pellets into the fish pens. At a farm we visited, feed amounts are carefully regulated by an operator on the shore using computers and underwater cameras so that the flow of feed can stop when the fish stop eating.

And then there are the health questions.

Salmon meat is orange in the wild, but they have to be fed nutrients in the farms to attain that color. SalmonChile's Infante insists that the nutrient is a natural substance and not food coloring.

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