CHILE: Salmon Virus Indicts Chile's Fishing Methods

Publisher Name: 
The New York Times

PUERTO MONTT, Chile
- Looking out over the low green mountains jutting through miles of
placid waterways here in southern Chile, it is hard to imagine that
anything could be amiss. But beneath the rows of neatly laid netting
around the fish farms just off the shore, the salmon are dying.

A virus called infectious salmon anemia,
or I.S.A., is killing millions of salmon destined for export to Japan,
Europe and the United States. The spreading plague has sent shivers
through Chile's third-largest export industry, which has left local
people embittered by laying off more than 1,000 workers.

It has
also opened the companies to fresh charges from biologists and
environmentalists who say that the breeding of salmon in crowded
underwater pens is contaminating once-pristine waters and producing
potentially unhealthy fish.

Some say the industry is raising
its fish in ways that court disaster, and producers are coming under
new pressure to change their methods to preserve southern Chile's
cobalt blue waters for tourists and other marine life.

"All these
problems are related to an underlying lack of sanitary controls," said
Dr. Felipe C. Cabello, a professor in the Department of Microbiology
and Immunology at New York Medical College in Valhalla that has studied
Chile's fishing industry. "Parasitic infections, viral infections,
fungal infections are all disseminated when the fish are stressed and
the centers are too close together."

Industry executives
acknowledge some of the problems, but they reject the notion that their
practices are unsafe for consumers. American officials also say the new
virus is not harmful to humans.

But the latest outbreak has
occurred after a rash of nonviral illnesses in recent years that the
companies acknowledge have led them to use high levels of antibiotics.
Researchers say the practice is widespread in the Chilean industry,
which is a mix of international and Chilean producers. Some of those
antibiotics, they say, are prohibited for use on animals in the United
States.

Many of those salmon still end up in American grocery
stores, where about 29 percent of Chilean exports are destined. While
fish from China have come under special scrutiny in recent months, here
in Chile regulators have yet to form a registry that even tracks the
use of the drugs, researchers said.

The new virus is spreading,
but it has primarily affected the fish of Marine Harvest, a Norwegian
company that is the world's biggest producer of farm-raised salmon and
exports about 20 percent of the salmon that come from Chile.

Salmon
produced in Chile by Marine Harvest are sold in Costco and Safeway
stores, among other major grocery retailers, said Torben Petersen, the
managing director of Marine Harvest here.

Arne Hjeltnes, the
main spokesman in Oslo for Marine Harvest, said that his company
recognized that antibiotic use was too high in Chile and that fish pens
too close together had contributed to the problems. He said Marine
Harvest welcomed tougher environmental regulations.

"Some people
have advocated that this industry is too good to be true," Mr. Hjeltnes
said. "But as long as everybody has been making lots of money and it
has been going very well, there has been no reason to take tough
measures."

He called the current crisis "eye-opening" to the different measures that are needed.

On
a recent visit to the port of Castro, about 105 miles south of Puerto
Montt, a warehouse contained hundreds of bags, some weighing as much as
2,750 pounds, filled with salmon food and medication.

The bags -
many of which were labeled "Marine Harvest" and "medicated food" for
the fish - contained antibiotics and pigment as well as hormones to
make the fish grow faster, said Adolfo Flores, the port director.

Environmentalists
say the salmon are being farmed for export at the expense of almost
everything else around. The equivalent of 7 to 11 pounds of fresh fish
are required to produce 2 pounds of farmed salmon, according to
estimates.

Salmon feces and food pellets are stripping the water
of oxygen, killing other marine life and spreading disease, biologists
and environmentalists say. Escaped salmon are eating other fish species
and have begun invading rivers and lakes as far away as neighboring
Argentina, researchers say.

"It is simply not possible to
produce fish on an industrial scale in a sustainable way," said Wolfram
Heise, director of the marine conservation program at the Pumalin
Project, a private conservation initiative in Chile. "You will never
get it into ecological balance."

When companies began breeding
non-native Atlantic salmon here some two decades ago, salmon farming
was seen as a godsend for this sparsely populated area of sleepy
fishing towns and campgrounds.

The industry has grown eightfold
since 1990. Today it employs 53,000 people either directly or
indirectly. Marine Harvest runs the world's largest "closed system"
fish-farming operation at Rio Blanco, near Puerto Montt, where 35
million fish a year are raised until they weigh about a third of an
ounce.

As the industry abandons the Lakes region in search of
uncontaminated waters elsewhere, local residents are angry and worried
about their future.

The salmon companies "are robbing us of our
wealth," said Victor Guttierrez, a fisherman from Cochamó, a town
ringing the Gulf of Reloncavi, which is dotted with salmon farms. "They
bring illnesses and then leave us with the problems."

Since
discovering the virus in Chile last July, Marine Harvest has closed 14
of its 60 centers and announced it would lay off 1,200 workers, or
one-quarter of its Chilean operation. Since the company announced last
month that it would move south, to Aysén, the government has said the
virus has spread there as well, in two outbreaks not involving Marine
Harvest.

Industry officials say Chile is suffering growing pains
similar to salmon farming operations in Norway, Scotland and the Faroe
Islands, where a different form of the I.S.A. virus struck previously.

Norway, the world's leading salmon producer, eventually decided to spread salmon farms farther apart, reducing stress on the fish, and responded to criticism of high antibiotic use with stronger regulations and the development of vaccines.

Researchers in Chile say the problems of salmon farming go well beyond the latest virus. Their concerns mirror those of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, which heavily criticized Chile's farm-fishing industry in a 2005 report.

The
O.E.C.D. said the industry needed to limit the escapes of about one
million salmon a year; control the use of fungicides like green
malachite, a carcinogen that was prohibited in 2002; and better
regulate the colorant used to make salmon more rosy, which has been
associated with retina problems in humans. It also said Chile's use of
antibiotics was "excessive."

Officials at Sernapesca, Chile's
national fish agency, declined repeated requests for interviews for
this article and did not respond to written questions submitted more
than a week ago.

But Cesar Barros, the president of
SalmonChile, an industry association, said, "We are working with the
government to improve the situation."

He dismissed the broader
criticism of sanitary conditions, saying there was no scientific
evidence to support the claims. But researchers charge that the
industry has been reluctant to pay for scientific studies, which Chile
sorely needs.

Residual antibiotics have been detected in
Chilean salmon that have been exported to the United States, Canada and
Europe, Dr. Cabello said.

He estimated that 70 to 300 times
more antibiotics are used by salmon producers in Chile to produce a ton
of salmon than in Norway. But no hard data exist to corroborate the
estimates, he said, "because there is almost an underground market of
antibiotics in Chile for salmon aquaculture."

Researchers say
that some antibiotics that are not allowed in American aquaculture,
like flumequine and oxolinic acid, are legal in Chile and may increase
antibiotic resistance for people. Last June the United States Food and Drug Administration blocked the sale of five types of Chinese seafood because of the use of fluoroquinolones and other additives.

But
huge numbers of fish go uninspected. The F.D.A. inspected only 1.93
percent of all imported seafood in 2006, Food and Water Watch said,
citing F.D.A. data.

Stephanie Kwisnek, a spokeswoman for the
F.D.A., said that she did not know the percentage inspected. But she
said the F.D.A. tested 40 samples of the 114,320 net tons of salmon
imported from Chile in 2007. None of them tested positive for malachite
green, oxolinic acid, flumequine, Ivermectin, fluoroquinolones or drug
residues, she said.

The F.D.A. is planning an inspection trip to assess Chile's overall controls on its farmed salmon, she added.

Mr. Petersen, the managing director of Marine Harvest in Chile, said
the company planned to return to the Lakes region in a few years, once
the area had become free of contamination. In the longer term, he said,
Marine Harvest will leave Chile's fresh-water lakes and produce more
older salmon in closed systems where it can maintain "biological
control."

Meanwhile, neighboring fishermen who have been
affected by the fish-farming industry can only hope for better days.
Mr. Guttierrez, 33, said that just six years ago he and his fishing
partner would haul in 1,100 pounds of robalo on a typical day. On a
recent day he pointed to that morning's catch of only 88 pounds in a
cooler in the bed of a pickup truck.

He lamented the changes he
had observed in the fish: they are rosier than before, and their skin
is flabbier. He said he suspected that the wild fish were eating the
same food pellets that the salmon were being fed, which he said were
falling to the sea floor.

"If the water continues to be
contaminated, we will simply have to go to another area to find our
fish," he said. "But it is getting harder and harder."

Pascale Bonnefoy contributed reporting from Santiago, Chile.

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