Farming Salmon – A Good Idea?



By Sally Campbell

Ten years ago, in June 2008, I was invited by the Pure Salmon Campaign to the AGM of Marine Harvest (MH) in Oslo. At the time Arran had been fighting a huge new MH sponsored salmon farm proposal north of Clauchlands Point in Lamlash, with 800,000 fish up to 4.5 kg putting out 200 tonnes of waste (faecal and food) per year into the Clyde, plus the chemicals to control disease and fish lice. The farm was refused planning after an enormous amount of effort by the community and we were waiting at that time to hear if Marine Harvest would appeal. They did and subsequently lost their appeal!

An international group of like minded campaigners had assembled in June 2008 in Oslo for the AGM, each group with direct questions to the CEO on farm size, lack of pollution control and health and safety of workers. These included members from the trade union movement in Chile; Juan Carlos a vet from Chile and head of Ecoceanos: John Volpe from University of British Columbia; a Tribal Chief, Robert Chamberlin, from the First Nation People of British Columbia, Canada; and the Pure Salmon Campaign. We also delivered to Marine Harvest a letter from Save the Swilly Group in Ireland. Our group discussions centred on salmon politics. For example in Chile the sanitary conditions on the farms were poor. Around that time the ISA virus in Chile had decimated Marine Harvest fish farm stocks. It seemed possible that the virus had been imported in salmon eggs from Norway, though not proven at the time. 600 workers were laid off without what to us would be a redundancy package.

The failed CEO in Chile also lost his job- but it was phrased that “he wished to spend more time with his family”, and he received Norwegian Kroner 3M cash payout and 7.5 million shares in Marine Harvest. At that time 17% of workers were subsidised by the Chilean Government. They had received $480 per month for 10-12 hour days. Much more concerning were health and safety records that showed that in the 14 months prior 54 workers had died in workplace accidents at their operations, that is 1.5 workers each month, the highest mortality rate in the world salmon industry. If that had been in Norway or UK the company would be in huge difficulties with health and safety, even proscribed from continued operation. This situation arose because MH does not work to uniformally high standards on environment and health and safety in Chile as in Norway, their home country, unlike many multinationals industrial safety policy. Instead they state that they adhere to standards in the country of operation. This position still applies to MH operations in 2018 and yet Chile had at that time weak institutions regulating the industry.

Further there were problems of democratic rights in Chile for the inshore fishermen. The rights of coastal communities were ignored even although they were the prime stakeholders in the marine environment. There was lack of rights of access to information and serious impediments to obtaining justice. This lack of information extended to antibiotics being used in Chilean fish farms and anti sealice medicines. Finally there was a deficiency in citizen public participation in political decisions, a situation condoned by fish farmers and the Chilean government.

In addition we learned about the soya, being grown in Argentina to bulk up the fish food, and the buying up of land, putting pressure on natural forests and clearance of indigenous farmers from that land. There was already at that time a campaign world-wide against krill fishing for salmon feed and nutraceuticals in Antarctic waters. Norway, Russia, Korea, Japan were all into krill fisheries.

We all learned a lot about the international strategy of Marine Harvest from the CEO Åse Aulie Michelet at this Oslo AGM:

Planet: Sustainable and environmentally responsible work
People: Opportunity based on merit
Product: Tasty, healthy and safe seafood
Profit: Competitive profits from ethical and healthy products added value

It was stated that operational efficiency and sustainability go hand in hand and farmed salmon represents a major and sustainable resource to feed the world. When asked about health and safety the reply was “There was a significant increase in LTA (loss time accidents) so MH closed farms earlier than anticipated”. No questions posed were adequately answered. The situation was indefensible !

After the AGM I wrote to Thomas Farstad, Group Director Operations about my own question at the AGM concerning the local issue of development in Arran waters as follows:
My question at the Annual General Meeting was about sustainability and consultation with communities. Sustainability of profit seems to be the one favoured by Marine Harvest. It is clear that whilst open cages are used in the sea, the process is not sustainable. Harvesting krill from the cold waters off South America or Antarctica and bringing it to Europe for food is hardly small food miles as Marine Harvest claims for its salmon products. 800,000 fish up to 4.5 kg over 22 months were proposed at Clauchlands putting out 200 tonnes of faecal waste and uneaten food per year. It is not good enough to say “this will disperse”. Arran as a community lives largely on tourism, not on the perhaps 2-4 full time jobs in addition to those Marine Harvest employed at the time of application at the other fish farm in Lamlash Bay, now part of Lighthouse Caledonia.
The reply I received fitted the strategy above! Fine soothing words ! Lighthouse Caledonia became part of Scottish Salmon Company soon after.

So what has happened in Chile since 2008 ?
Escapes from MH farms:
The most recent has resulted in Regulators charging Marine Harvest Chile with the deficient operation of its Punta Redonda farming site following the escape of 690,000 salmon on July 5 2018. Chile’s Superintendency of the Environment (SMA) accuses MH Chile of causing environmental damage by failing to recapture at least 10% of the escaped fish. The company was given an extra 30 days beyond the standard 30-day limit to reach the minimum recapture total, but according to official figures it managed just 5.54%. In a press release, the SMA said MH Chile faced two charges:

• Not maintaining appropriate safety conditions at Punta Redonda, nor the elements of optimal quality and resistance, the consequence of which was the massive escape of fish;
• Maintaining and operating support facilities on land not intended for a silage operation.

The first of the alleged infractions is classified as extremely serious, as it constituted as causing environmental damage that could not be repaired, so MH Chile risks revocation of the farm licence, closure or a fine of up to 5.6 billion pesos (£6.2 million).
After notification of the charges, MH Chile will have a period of 10 working days to present a compliance programme for the case of the second infraction, and 15 working days to formulate a disclaimer, respectively. Clearly the company is not facing reality

Biomass on salmon farms:
Chile began major reforms to the sector in 2016.
About 80% of Chile’s salmon producers subscribed to planned seeding reduction (PRS in Spanish), announced by Sernapesca’s head of aquaculture the fishing secretariat. In exchange for a free pass to stock farms at the maximum density, companies were only allowed to expand if they met sanitary goals. The government set out an incentives-based system that permits a maximum capacity growth of 3% a year in any single farm provided companies reach output and sanitary targets established by the government, according to a decree that was signed by president Michelle Bachelet at the time. “We have been listening for a long time, but now we have to introduce sanitary rules for this sector,” the Undersecretary of Fishing and Aquaculture, said in a press conference in the Chilean capital Santiago. “There are a lot of people employed by this sector who need clear rules and stability for the future.”

Even though density regulation uses a sliding biosecurity score, most companies would be forced to stock at the lowest density limits because the high mortality rates arising from the outbreak of algal bloom in 2016 that severely curtailed Chilean production. In May 2016 Marine Harvest said the government must reconsider a form of regulation that can help unleash the country’s “great potential” in salmon farming. Chile’s government had made a new set of regulations that it planned to enshrine in law. The new rules came up short of the industry’s expectations, prompting several companies — including Marine Harvest — to initiate legal proceedings. “Marine Harvest can’t accept changes in regulation that only add cost to the operation and decrease its competitiveness,” said Per-Roar Gjerde, managing director of Marine Harvest Chile, “Chile has great potential in this industry. That is why we have to appeal this regulation, together with several other companies.” It was corporate power and greed versus the State

In 2016, after having one of its most unprofitable years ever, Chile’s salmon industry had been further ravaged by a number of setbacks, including the outbreak of the Chatonella algae that killed millions of fish, and a 17-day strike by fisherman on the island of Chiloe that cut most of the large producers off from export markets. The industry also faced a PR disaster in Chile as a large portion of the population attributed the outbreak of toxins on the southern Chilean coast that led to the fishermen’s strike to the earlier practice of tossing dead and diseased salmon into the sea. The President ordered a study to identify the root causes of the toxic red tide that had led to an outright ban on fishing. The new regulation applicable today involves closer inspections and a system of incentives where companies are compensated for lowering their output.

In June 2016 a Chilean appeals court ordered the government’s Sernapesca fisheries body to disclose the details of antibiotic use by salmon producers operating in the country. The ruling required a disaggregation of the antibiotics use by company for 2014. The court upheld a claim filed by the Oceana environmental group after 37 salmon producers, and subsequently Sernapesca and Chile’s transparency council, refused to disclose the details of antibiotic use in 2014, claiming it posed a competition and commercial risk for the companies. A Chilean appeals court had ordered the government’s Sernapesca fisheries body to disclose the details of antibiotic use by salmon producers operating in the country. Salmon farmers in Chile, the world’s second-largest producer of the fish, were using record levels of antibiotics to treat a virulent and pervasive bacteria, and as a consequence driving away some U.S. retailers. “We expect this unequivocal ruling to set a precedent, that salmon farms comply with it, and that once and for all the use of antibiotics in Chilean salmon farming can be made transparent,” said Liesbeth van der Meer, interim executive director of Oceana’s Chile office.

The coastal waters of Chile are awash with a bacteria known as SRS capable of generating Piscirickettsiosis. The bacteria causes lesions and haemorrhaging in infected fish, and swells their kidneys and spleens, eventually killing them. Unable to develop an effective vaccine, Chilean farmers have been forced to increase antibiotic use. In 2014, the industry produced around 895,000 tonnes of fish and used 563.2 tonnes of antibiotics, according to government and industry data. Antibiotic use had risen 25 percent from 2013. Sernapesca said that it “valued” the ruling, which “goes in the right direction regarding the transparency with which this industry should operate.”

If you wanted to search for the next drug-resistant superbug, you could cart your microscope to a pig farm, or look under the glare of a hospital’s lights. But a better idea would be off searching somewhere more picturesque — like the chilly bays of southern Chile. There, salmon farmers are using up to 950 grams of antibiotics to raise one ton of fish, according to a recent Oceana report. The report, the first to disaggregate antibiotic use on a company-by-company basis, shows that Chile’s salmon farmers might be applying more drugs per tonne of meat than any other fish or livestock industry in the world. Norway, for example, uses just 0.17 grams per tonne of salmon. And pork, a notoriously drug-dependent industry, uses an average of 172 grams per tonne globally.

It is a deadly calculus: The more antibiotics you use, the more antibiotic-resistant bacteria are likely to be created. As dangerous, drug-resistant infections crop up around the world, experts say that Chile may be fuelling an epidemic for the sake of cheap fish. Conditions on these farms favour the selection of genetic mutations that protect bacteria from antibiotics. Bacteria that win the mutation lottery can then divide and spread unchecked, in a microscopic version of survival of the fittest. These “winners” can even trade drug-resistant snippets of DNA with unrelated species, a process called horizontal gene transfer. This means that bacteria that cause diseases in fish — or just live harmlessly in the water and mud around salmon farms — can pass resistance genes directly to bacteria that make humans sick. “Consumers should be worried that we are creating super-bacteria here in Chile,” said Liesbeth van der Meer, a veterinary scientist and the head of Oceana in Chile.

So why is Chile using so many antibiotics in the first place? It is because the country’s salmon are under assault from a hemorrhagic bacterial disease known as piscirickettsiosis. The main weapon against this epidemic is florfenicol, a common veterinary antibiotic used to treat animals as diverse as fish, chicken and cattle. Several studies suggest that florfenicol-resistant bugs are widespread in and near Chile’s salmon farms. Florfenicol-resistant bacteria, for example, can withstand antimicrobials used in humans, including one that’s a last-resort treatment for multidrug-resistant infections.

Chilean officials have unveiled long-awaited rules change for salmon farms that imposes new limits, incentivizes reduced production and cuts paperwork for firms. As shown above under biomass.
The government set out an incentives-based system that permits a maximum capacity growth of 3% per year.

The new rules reflect best practices from other countries, but also correspond to Chile’s own geographical and biological reality. Chile is spending almost a dollar per kilo in administering antibiotics to fish to combat salmon rickettsial septicaemia as indicated above, which represents the local industry’s main challenge, the vice minister said. ‘The new rules are a starting point for the industry, complementing other existing laws governing the sector, and are open to modification as time evolves’, said the head of the fishing authority’s aquaculture division. The regulator Subpesca has met on several occasions this year with the National Aquaculture Committee, regulators and outside consultants, without reaching an agreement. Top executives including MH CEO Alf-Helge Aarskog have called on the government to copy the Norwegian licensing model, which offers licenses for larger-scale farms spaced further apart. The model has been copied by several salmon-producing countries, including Canada, the Faroe Islands and Scotland. Chile needs to establish a quota for sustainable biomass and then establish production quotas, said MH Chile chief Per-Roar Gjerde, in a slightly more enlightened approach.

Chilean regulators plan to introduce a rule change that will make it much harder for salmon farming companies, including MH, to expand production. The fishing and aquaculture regulator, Sernapesca, will penalize companies that are using an option known as “density regulation” to re-stock fallow sites with fish, according to an August 2018 memo sent to industry executives. The proposal will effectively force companies to stock pens at a maximum of 4 kilograms per square meter instead of 8kg currently, making it economically unfeasible. “This will make [expanding] totally unviable,” a salmon farming executive said. “They are changing the density rules to make them extremely restrictive. The government referenced an outbreak of infectious salmon anaemia (ISA) at a Cermaq Group farm in Aysen in 2018, as a driver behind the proposal. It fears that high prices are enticing Chilean salmon farmers to slip into a boom-and-bust cycle of ramping up site stocking during times of high prices, which in the past has led to heightened illness and die-offs.

Several farming “neighbourhoods” or so-called macro-zones in Chile registered pen stocking increases of more than 30% in the last six months, Sernapesca said, citing statistics in a 14-page memo that backed its declaration to producers. The proposal allowed the industry a 48-hour period to respond to the measures with observations that expired Aug. 10. The government authority plans to immediately implement the changes. Deep regulatory changes introduced last year were aimed to limit supply from Chilean farms. The government introduced an option called planned seeding reduction (PRS in Spanish) which permits companies to stock sites at the maximum allowed density of 17.5 kilograms per square meter in exchange for limits on supply, depending on sanitary performance. Most companies adhered to PRS, bringing stability to the industry.

But the government left open a second option, density regulation, which allows companies to expand at a higher cost determined by a biosecurity score. Sernapesca was forced to grant companies these options to avoid getting parliamentary approval for constitutional changes as these could have taken several years. The regulations created winners and losers, based on the fact that PRS is based on the total production capacity of a company based on its last pen stocking ratio to total licenses. Companies that were using a traditional average ratio of total licenses including Blumar and Multiexport Foods subscribed to PRS and praised the new system. But other companies, thought to include Marine Harvest, our focus of attention here, were wrong-footed by the new legislation as they were using a low ratio of their total licenses in the run-up to the regulatory change, several executives contacted by Undercurrent said. This latest change would in effect shut the door for producers such as Marine Harvest to recover licenses they were not using, as they would have to pay an exorbitant price to do so, executive A said. with the new measure preventing it from expanding. In December 2018 a group of companies who claim they were hurt by changes to Chile’s regulatory framework may have initiated legal proceedings against the government. The dispute dates back to 2015, when several of the industry’s biggest players reduced production in response to lower prices and in some cases to contain the spread of salmonid rickettsial syndrome, which is treated with antibiotics.

The new regulations, which were fully enacted last year, were deemed to favour companies who were using more of their licensed capacity in 2015. Chilean authorities have expressed concern at very high stocking levels potentially being a precursor to more disease. Output from the South American country is expected to surge 14% this year to more than 600,000 metric tonnes. Chile’s regulations row has its origins in the government’s liberal issuance of farming licenses in the 1980s and 1990s. Over 1,200 licenses were issued for the Chilean fjords of Los Lagos and Aysen region, and Marine Harvest was one of the companies assiduously acquiring these licences.

As you can see progress in Chile is slow, laborious, complicated, and so similar to Scotland, where we are now hoping SEPA will be more proactive in reining in Marine Harvest and others and perhaps avoiding the worst of what we see reported from Chile.

So that is Chile…what about Marine Harvest in British Columbia and Scotland?

Read more about those other countries with concerned representatives at the AGM in Oslo 2008 in part two, in the next edition of the Voice.