Salmon Farming In Chile Impacts Fishermen, Environment

Chile now challenges Norway in salmon exports. Appetites abroad are fueling huge growth in the region, but pollution from immense salmon farms is harming coastal environments. And, a recent decree granted tens of thousands of acres of the sea to salmon farms, pushing out small artisanal fishermen.

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Chile's is the world's second-largest producer of salmon, and much of all the salmon eaten in the U.S. comes from there. But the fish isn't native to Chile, and a few years ago, risky farming practices ushered in a virus that nearly wiped out the salmon industry.

Annie Murphy reports now on how the industry is rebounding in Chile and, in the process, transforming the country's coast.

ANNIE MURPHY: If you fly low above the Pacific, about 600 miles south of Santiago, red metal boxes and spheres appear in the sea off of Patagonia like lost toys. They're cages filled with farmed salmon and take hours to pass over.

This multibillion dollar industry is concentrated around the city of Puerto Montt. Until a few years ago, fish were packed too close together, which made it easy for a 2007 virus to kill millions of salmon.

Cesar Barros, head of the salmon farming organization SalmonChile, says a comeback happened only because farms became better regulated and spread out.

CESAR BARROS: We have divided the sea into barrios, or neighborhoods, according to the more or less independent water systems.

MURPHY: These enormous tracks of ocean were granted to salmon companies as concessions. The system is similar to measures taken in Canada but on a much larger scale.

Critics in Chile, many of them small fishermen, say it privatizes the sea. But economist Andres Gomez-Lobo says putting the ocean into private hands may the best way to make sure it's taken care of. It's the tragedy of the commons, he says.

ANDRES GOMEZ: The tragedy of commons is very simple. It says, when something belongs to everyone, no one takes care of it. It becomes degraded. And that affects all the fisheries in the world.

MURPHY: But neighborhoods granted to salmon farms aren't a few blocks or even just a few kilometers big. Cesar Barros.

BARROS: These are big, big, big, big.

MURPHY: Like, how big?

BARROS: Thousands of square kilometers.

MURPHY: Thousands of square kilometers?

BARROS: Well, it's a huge sea.

MURPHY: A huge sea. Before being brought to land to be killed and processed, each salmon is in the ocean for over a year, which also means animal waste and uneaten food laced with antibiotics.

The Ministry of Environment declined to comment for this story. In coastal towns like Puerto Chacabuco, it's clear that the salmon industry is making a comeback and is changing local fishing culture, too.

Puerto Chacabuco is full of compact, metal-roofed houses, shrouded in greenery and doused by constant rain. This used to be a fishing town. But today, most residents work at salmon processing plants like this one, where things are picking up after the crisis four years ago.

It's cold and smells like metal and mudflats. A group of workers dressed head to toe in white plastic are doing stretching exercises in unison to break up the monotony of deboning salmon filets.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXERCISING)

Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)

MURPHY: They're led by a woman counting in Spanish. She stands over a maze of conveyor belts moving with bright pink salmon and salmon parts.

Oridia Paredes has just come off her shift. Beneath the white hood of her uniform, Paredes looks like a space-age nun. She compares this job with what she did before, fishing off the family boat.

ORIDIA PAREDES: (Through translator) Each person has their job, and every month they're going to have money in their pocket. Before, you didn't know if things would go well or not.

MURPHY: She also says she misses the fresh air and being on the water. According to Paredes, she had little choice but to give up her work as a small fisherwoman.

PAREDES: (Through translator) Things started to change when the salmon farms moved in. Wild fishing diminished. And once farms started to work with salmon, all of a sudden there was no one who wanted to buy other kinds of fish.

MURPHY: For those still hanging onto small fishing, the future is uncertain.

Rocio Carrera has dark hair tied back with a scarf. She's cleaning a few big, slimy conger eels at the Altamar Fish Market, and her glass refrigerator case is empty.

ROCIO CARRERA: (Spanish spoken)

MURPHY: Carrera says that salmon that escape from the farms cause problems for other fish. Before, she says, sea bass was cheap. And you could catch it easily. But now, the fishermen say salmon are eating the other fish.

As for Oridia Paredes, the fisherwoman turned factory worker, she can't remember the last time she bought any kind of fish.

PAREDES: (Spanish spoken)

MURPHY: Fish is expensive, she says. We almost never eat it.

For NPR News, I'm Annie Murphy, in Chile.

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