Salmon has proliferated on menus in Argentine cities, but consumers might be more wary if they knew where the pink fish came from and how it is cultivated. Ben Miller investigates.
For anyone who has ever eaten out in Buenos Aires, it is clear that fish is not the focus on most menus. Even so, many restaurants and purveyors offer salmon as the standard seafood option. Abundant and popular as the pink fish may seem—whether smoked, poached, or rolled into sushi—the reality behind where it comes from is altogether less appealing.
All the salmon consumed in Argentina comes from Chile’s fish farms, which place naturally carnivorous wild salmon into crowded, semi-permeable ocean feedlot pens. Since non-native salmon were introduced to Chile’s coastal regions less than 40 years ago, the country has grown in to the world’s second-largest producer and exporter, with profits growing to nearly US$4.5bn in 2015.
However, this industrial-scale farming of salmon is increasingly viewed as negative both in terms of the local environment and the health properties of the fish themselves. As a non-native species packed into an enclosed space, pink salmon is prone to several infections and ocean parasites, which necessitates the industry’s use of chemical-enriched fodder. In Chile, global aquaculture operations like Marine Harvest and Cermaq (both Norwegian) have taken advantage of looser national regulations to expand rapidly and maximize profits.
“Chilean farmers put 10 times more salmon into the cages than Norwegian farmers,” claims Argentine journalist Soledad Barruti in her investigative book Malcomidos. “They also use 1,000% more antibiotics than in Norway. Of the 12 types of antibiotics used in Chile, eight are forbidden in Norway.”
Biologist Hector Kol, a former employee of Marine Harvest, has also spoken out on what he claims is the harsh truth of Chilean aquaculture. “In Chile we have legalised the irrational consumption of antibiotics,” he claimed in a special interview with Universidad de Chile’s television station, citing statistics that Marine Harvest uses 36,000 times more antibiotics on Chilean salmon than their Norwegian counterparts.
The offshore pens that salmon are farmed in allow these chemicals to flow freely into open water. Kol references “anti-piojo” pesticide used in permeable aquaculture pens, which he says creates ocean runoff and contributes to overall sea life mortality rates. The World Wildlife Fund also warns that the excessive use of chemicals, antibiotics, and pesticides in salmon farming could have “unintended consequences for marine organisms and human health.” It also notes that diseases among the farmed fish present a risk to the wild marine population in the local area.
The controversies surrounding intensive salmon farming have dominated the debate along Chile’s southern coast in recent months. In May, a dramatic scene beset the rocky beaches of Chiloé— the island epicentre of Chile’s commercial fishing industry—when thousands of dead fish, marine mammals, and mollusks suddenly washed ashore. The fishing communities of Chiloé have seen beached marine life in the past, caused by the so-called ‘red tide’ of harmful algae, but never before in such extreme volume.
An impending loss of livelihood prompted the fishing communities of Chiloé and Puerto Montt to strike. By blocking major access roads to Chiloé in late May, protesting fishermen and their families demanded the government investigate and mitigate the causes of this severe ecological crisis.
“The situation is very tense,” says Zoila Bustamante, a lead organiser in the artisanal fishermen’s confederation CONAPACH. “We cannot work normally as a result of the water contamination, and many can not earn enough to take care of their families.”
Bustamante, like many local fishermen, believes that the severity of recent marine die-offs has resulted more from industrial fishing waste contamination than typical red tide cycles, citing the excess of chemicals permitted by the government as an enabling destructive force in the fishery. She says the region’s industrial salmon operations pose a major threat to artisanal fishermen’s traditions and livelihoods as both local vendors and international exporters.
The islanders have also raised suspicions over the estimated 4,000 tonnes of dead salmon that were dumped into the ocean just before the deadly algal bloom. An initial case of ‘red tide’ at the start of the year killed some 25 million salmon, the majority of which were dumped back into the ocean under the supervision of naval and fishery officials.
The remnants of antibiotic chemicals and diseased pathogens in those same salmon carcasses respectively pose the two-fold threat of algal growth stimulation and mass infection, both of which some suspect could be catalysts behind the abnormally fatal phenomenon currently plaguing Chile’s coastal waters. Epidemiologist Fernando Mardones explains that antibiotics used in agriculture fall into the surrounding environment and create resilient bacterial communities in the long term. “After a while, the antibiotic-resistant bacteria can become resistant to everything, affecting the same fish until it reaches a human being,” he told the Associated Foreign Press.
Producers reject this theory, saying the dumping was undertaken in a safe manner and that a combination of natural factors—including warm El Niño ocean currents—likely created these toxic coastal conditions.
The Chilean government’s initial response was non-committal, officially recognising only El Niño as the cause for May’s fatal algae growth, but assuring the protesters that “a team of five excellent professionals has been formed to work on the task of examining the link between the dumping of salmon and the red tide phenomenon.”
There is growing concern that the negative impacts of aquaculture practices like those expanding so quickly in Chile also extend to consumers’ plates.
This is particularly relevant for Argentine consumers, which have shown increased demand for salmon in recent years. Barruti points to sushi as a prime example of fashionable food that has created such demand for cheaper salmon. The nutritional benefits of natural omega-3s also bolstered salmon’s reputation among populations of health-conscious consumers.
In many cases, however, salmon’s distinctive pink hue—often enhanced by industrial food dye—and fishy flavor motivate buyers and sellers to overlook quality. Moreover, some claim traces of the antibiotics used to treat salmon—in lieu of a newly approved SRS vaccine—may persist within the fish long after they are caught, shipped, and sold at market.
While a bit of leftover medication in each filet may sound fortifying, the World Health Organisation states that “overuse of antibiotics—in farming or for human medical treatment—speeds up the development of antibiotic resistance, which is when bacteria change and become resistant to the antibiotics used to treat infections they cause.”
Worrying, then, that the chemical dependency of Chilean aquaculture farms reached a historic high in 2015, with 557 tonnes of antibiotics – around 660g per tonne of salmon – used according to the regulator body Sernapesca.
These concerns have led some large food purveyors like Costco (the third largest US food retailer) to ditch Chilean salmon in favor of “antibiotic-free” Norwegian alternatives. Yet in Buenos Aires, where even the city’s finest restaurants can only access unsustainably farmed pink salmon, responsible consumption becomes a big challenge.
For the discerning chef, Argentina’s addiction to Chile’s abundant salmon product poses a dilemma; cater to diner’s demands, or remove salmon from the menu?
Few places so far seem to have made a stand. At the popular Peruvian franchise La Mar Cebicheria, chef Anthony Vázquez resolved to adapt their seafood-dominated offerings last year after noticing that Chilean salmon had “high toxicity levels and poor quality.” He also noted that purchasing foreign fish meant overlooking local Rio de la Plata products like trout, which conflicts directly with the restaurant’s mission to “create a space for local producers”. Even so, one year later La Mar still includes pink salmon in all sections of their menu.
Casa Felix, a closed-door restaurant in Chacarita, has never featured pink salmon on their pescatarian set menu. “We serve white salmon from Argentina, but we do not approve of the way that pink salmon is raised in Chile,” said chef Álvaro Zapata in an interview. “It is better to consume the less-popular fish from Argentina, like corvina and grouper (sea bass), because we know the producers and we know it is fresh.”
Back in Chile, while the debate surrounding causality rages on, the fatal situation plaguing Chile’s coast is damaging the business and livelihood of artisanal fishing communities. According to Bustamante, the fishermen negotiated a small subsidy for the four months immediately following the initial crisis, a measure that many consider provisional at best. She notes new scholarships for the children of fishermen at national universities as another small victory.
Combatting the spread of salmon farming remains the broader goal. Despite its popularity abroad, Bustamante insists that “very few fishermen here eat salmon because the farmed product is second-rate and expensive.” Beyond these objections to quality and value, Bustamante notes that many feel a moral imperative to avoid salmon for its harmful impact on the residents, tourism, and the environment of southern Chile. “The industry has practically left us out on the streets,” she laments, “and it bothers us that the government would give even a single peso to a foreign operation that takes jobs from local workers.”
The fishermen’s confederation CONAPACH plans to further negotiate against the industry’s proposed relocation elsewhere in the Los Lagos and Aysen regions, hoping to block the spread of chemical contamination along Chile’s southern coastline. Puerto Natales, one of Chile’s southernmost fishing communities in Patagonia, recently raised their voices against the encroachment of industrial salmon farming on their predominantly wild-catch fishery. “We are calling upon the authorities to stop this [industrial] initiative,” said Carmen Soto, farmer and president of the Isabel Riquelme colony, “we cannot believe that Puerto Natales may become as contaminated as Chiloé.”
The Chilean government ruled to impose stricter regulations on industrial salmon farms in late June, enforcing stricter inspections and withholding licenses to decrease the overcrowding and permeability of salmon pens and thereby avoid the escape and spread of infectious contaminants to open ocean. Weeks earlier, a court ruled that regulator Sernapesca would have to publish details of the antibiotics used by each company. Large producers like Marine Harvest are predictably averse to these new measures, decrying the government’s regulatory decisions as a roadblock to any financial rebound for the corporation. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether the impact of this year’s crisis – and a damaged reputation – will permanently change the methods and profitability of Chilean salmon farming.
It can be done. The same corporations devastating Chile’s artisinal fishing communities are already implementing reformed practices in European fishery contexts: better vaccines over antibiotics and improved measures to remove fish farms from open ocean.
As for porteños, saying no to Buenos Aires’ ubiquitous salmon sushi would certainly make a statement, but failing that simply acknowledging the wider implications of an industry that has largely circumvented regulation to dominate fish markets abroad would be a start.