April 24, 2007


Chile's booming seafood exports face greater scrutiny



Even as Chile's aquaculture industry have been celebrating as exports of the two main products of the industry, salmon and trout are booming, the industry has had to grapple with issues such as antibiotic use and environmental issues.


The value of Chile's salmon and trout export for the first two months of the year rose 30 percent above the same period last year, thanks to higher prices from Japan, the US and the EU.


In the past two decades, Chile's aquaculture industry has grown exponentially.


Seafood export earnings grew from just US$159 million in 1991 to a whopping US$2.2 billion last year.


However, environmentalists, international trade partners and consumers have all expressed concern that Chilean fish farming may be growing too fast.


For example, detection of prohibited substances in Chilean salmon have become more common in recent years.


Last year, Crystal Violent , an anti-fungal substance that was also believed to be carcinogenic, was found in processed salmon sent from Chile to the UK. The substance is banned in the EU.


However, Chile's seafood industry group SalmonChile, insists that no company in Chile uses it as part of its fish production. This follows incidents in 2003 and 2004, when fish from Chile were found to have Malachite Green, another banned chemical, by Dutch authorities.  Malachite green is an anti-parasite chemical used to treat fish.


Socialist Party Sen. Alejandro Navarro, a member of the Senate Environmental Committee,  criticised the industry, saying in a recent interview with a newspaper that the industry has gone out of control and are taxing both natural resources and labour.


Fish escapes are also a problem, with the escapes at some farms reaching 1.5 percent, a figure that could equate to millions of fish. The escaped fish feed on natural species and pollutes the genetics when they mate with wild species, according to environmental policy group Fundacion Terram.


Moreover, farmed fish are fed with fish caught from the open oceans in the form of pellets.


A study last year concluded that every one kilogramme of salmon produced required 10 kilogrammes of smaller wild fish. 


The idea of aquaculture is to protect the environment while producing more food, but Chilean aquaculture would have been a form of unsustainable aquaculture, environmental groups said.


Moreover, the huge quantities of waste produced from such farms leaves dead zones in the bays and also attracts disease and sea lice. According to one Chilean daily, sea lice in Chile's fish farms reached plague proportions this past summer. In search of cleaner, uninfected waters, many producers have been moving their operations further south.


The hands-off approach by the government also meant little is done to protect the environment. No research is funded either by the government or companies to alleviate problems caused by fish farms, Sen Navaro said.