Aquaculture for all

New accusations leveled at Chile's salmon industry - reputation under threat

SANTIAGO - The farmed salmon industry in Chile is a US$2 billion-a-year business and is already a frequent target of environmental groups.

However the industry is currently facing a new challenge to its reputation writes Benjamin Witte in The Santiago Times

Last December, authorities in Great Britain detected the presence of Crystal Violet in processed salmon being sold in England and Ireland. Crystal Violet, an anti-fungal substance, is believed to be carcinogenic and is prohibited in Europe.

The tainted salmon entered the United Kingdom via Thailand, but rumors circulated for the past few months that the fish may have been farmed in Chile.

In late February a group known as the Pure Salmon Campaign using information obtained under Great Britain's Freedom of Information act confirmed that rumor.

"The UK Government identifies Chile as the source of the contaminated farmed salmon," according to a Pure Salmon Campaign letter dated Feb. 22. "Information supplied by the UK Government on 19th February 2007 names the (British) retailer (Tesco), the supplier (Findus Ltd) and the exporter (Findus Ltd) but the name of any Chilean companies involved is blacked out."

British authorities, it turns out, have not been alone in being at least until now less than forthcoming with news of the Chilean-Crystal Violet connection. The organization responsible for the discovery, the United Kingdom's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), insists it informed Chilean government authorities of the situation as far back as mid January.

Why then didn't the Chilean government's National Fisheries Service (SERNAPESCA) comment on the issue until after the Pure Salmon Campaign broke the news?

A long list of environmental, consumer and labor organizations among them Pure Salmon Campaign, Greenpeace and the Region X Federation of Fishing Industry Workers are asking just that question.

"One would hope that government authorities, having been informed of the situation by their English counterparts, would make this information public. That didn't happen," said the group.

SERNAPESCA, in its defense, claims it took the warning seriously. Before making an official announcement, though, SERNAPESCA says it wanted first to collect more information on the matter and requested that DEFRA send a follow-up report. DEFRA, according to Chilean authorities, has yet to do so.

With SERNAPESCA and DEFRA busy pointing fingers at each other, SalmonChile the nation's principal salmon producers association has since taken it upon itself to name names. The tainted fish, SalmonChile revealed in a press statement, was likely grown by AquaChile, the country's largest Chilean-owned farmed fish company, and the Norwegian-owned entity Marine Harvest Chile.

Nevertheless, SalmonChile insists it has no idea why or how the prohibited substance appeared in the fish. Chilean fish farms, says the association, simply do not use Crystal Violet.

"As we've indicted repeatedly, no company in Chile that produces either salmon or salmon food uses Crystal Violet in any part of its chain of production," said SalmonChile. "In order to find out how and at what stage the Crystal Violet got into the product, which was processed in Thailand and tested in Great Britain, SalmonChile and particularly the companies mentioned have decided to carry out an investigation."

Also denying any wrongdoing is Victor Hugo Puchi, president of AquaChile, who told El Mercurio last week that Crystal Violet "isn't even in our vocabulary.

"As a sector, we're not at all familiar with this substance. When the alert went out, we had to start asking what Crystal Violet was all about," he said.

AquaChile and SalmonChile certainly have a vested interest in getting to the bottom of the matter and hopefully clearing the industry's name. Currently the world's second leading producer of farmed salmon (after Norway), Chile exported a record US$2.21 billion worth of farmed salmon and trout in 2006. Europe alone bought an estimated US$308 million worth of Chilean-farmed salmon and trout. Chile's top two farmed fish customers are the United States and Japan.

This is not the first time Chilean salmon has been discovered to contain prohibited substances. On several occasions between 2003 and 2004, authorities in Holland detected Malachite Green, another anti-fungal and -parasite chemical used to treat fish. A toxic found to cause respiratory problems, Malachite Green like Crystal Violet is prohibited in Europe (ST, July 10, Aug. 8, 2003 and Sept. 28, 2004).

Environmentalists have also complained for years that salmon farming practices place a tremendous strain on Mother Nature. Penned salmon and trout create huge quantities of toxic waste (feces), leaving dead zones in the bays and fjords where they are farmed. The fish are also overmedicated, say critics. Overuse of antibiotics has given rise to new resistant bacterial strains and hence illnesses that then threaten the world's diminishing wild salmon stocks.