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A Times Editorial

A lesson on fish farms from Chile

Some time later this year, federal regulators will vote on allowing commercial fish farming in the Gulf of Mexico. Before they decide, they should consider the cautionary tale of Chile's aquaculture industry. Once-pristine coastal waters of that country's Gulf of Reloncavi are now seriously degraded by pollution from unchecked salmon farming.

Raised in closely packed pens the size of houses, farmed salmon became Chile's third-largest export industry, with much of it entering the United States. Then the fish started dying off by the millions from a viral plague called infectious salmon anemia, the New York Times reported. Not only have hundreds of fish farming workers lost their jobs, but wild fish stocks in the area have been decimated as well.

"All of these problems are related to an underlying lack of sanitary controls," said Dr. Felipe Cabello, a professor who has studied Chile's fishing industry.

Fish kept in such confining conditions become stressed and must be fed high doses of antibiotics. Both fish waste and excess food release parasites, drug-resistant diseases and contaminants into surrounding waters. Local fisherman near the farms have seen a sharp drop-off in wild-fish stocks and an unnatural appearance of their catch from the colorant used to make farmed salmon flesh appear healthy.

Chile's fish farming problems might be more acute than those in other places, but they are hardly unusual. Salmon farmed throughout the North Atlantic have been stricken with a similar virus. Such outcomes have led Wolfram Heise, director of a marine conservation project in Chile, to a sobering conclusion: "It is simply not possible to produce fish on an industrial scale in a sustainable way."

Those hoping to farm the gulf will undoubtedly argue that the outcome will be different here. With fish farms farther from shore, currents would disperse the waste and contaminants, advocates say.

Maybe not, says a Pew Oceans Commission report. A 200,000-fish farm produces fecal waste equivalent to the raw sewage from 65,000 people, and the pollution spreads 500 feet beyond each site.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council will take up proposed fish-farming regulations this summer, after which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will make the final decision. Before regulators approve fish farming here, they ought to visit Chile, but be wary of the poached salmon on the menu.

A lesson on fish farms from Chile 04/03/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 7, 2008 3:31pm]
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