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.

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.

Because the salmon live in such close quarters, they are sometimes fed antibiotics to quell disease outbreaks. The industry insists that such feedings are rare and that the drugs are flushed from the system to meet U.S. standards before they send the fish to market.

A recent Pew Foundation study confirmed that farmed salmon from Chile is healthier than farmed salmon from the North Atlantic or North Pacific, largely because the food the fish eat comes from waters that are so pure.

To make his point, Infante digs into a bag of fish meal and starts eating the pellets.

"It's a healthy food," he says with a smile.

He offers me a taste. I try it. The salmon may like it, but I don't.

Around us silvery salmon are flying through the air splashing as they land.

The oceans simply can't produce enough wild fish to satisfy the world's appetite in the 21st century. And so in a global economy that knows no borders, a fish from the far north has found new life here in the far south.