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Salmon Virus Indicts Chile\u2019s Fishing Methods 
Published: March 27, 2008
PUERTO MONTT, Chile \u2014 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\u2019s 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\u2019s cobalt blue waters for tourists and other marine life.
\u201cAll these problems are related to an underlying lack of sanitary controls,\u201d 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\u2019s fishing industry. \u201cParasitic infections, viral infections, fungal infections are all disseminated when the fish are stressed and the centers are too close together.\u201d 
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\u2019s 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.
\u201cSome people have advocated that this industry is too good to be true,\u201d Mr. Hjeltnes said. \u201cBut 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.\u201d 
He called the current crisis \u201ceye-opening\u201d 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 \u2014 many of which were labeled \u201cMarine Harvest\u201d and \u201cmedicated food\u201d for the fish \u2014 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. 
\u201cIt is simply not possible to produce fish on an industrial scale in a sustainable way,\u201d said Wolfram Heise, director of the marine conservation program at the Pumalin Project, a private conservation initiative in Chile. \u201cYou will never get it into ecological balance.\u201d
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\u2019s largest \u201cclosed system\u201d 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 \u201care robbing us of our wealth,\u201d said Victor Guttierrez, a fisherman from Cochamó, a town ringing the Gulf of Reloncavi, which is dotted with salmon farms. \u201cThey bring illnesses and then leave us with the problems.\u201d 
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\u2019s 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\u2019s 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\u2019s use of antibiotics was \u201cexcessive.\u201d 
Officials at Sernapesca, Chile\u2019s 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, \u201cWe are working with the government to improve the situation.\u201d 
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, \u201cbecause there is almost an underground market of antibiotics in Chile for salmon aquaculture.\u201d
Researchers say that some antibiotics that are