The Price of Chilean Salmon

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Alarm bells have been sounding for a long time  about the perilous state of the world’s fish supplies. Species are collapsing and once-fertile fishing areas are growing barren as global consumption—driven in part by the exploding popularity of sushi—is slowly strip-mining the seas. One answer is aquaculture. Farm-raised fish—like farm-raised cattle or chickens—can yield an unlimited supply to an expanding market, and as long as you manage the environmental issues properly, you can even do things semi-sustainably.

Guess what? Not everyone is taking that environmental management part seriously. Australia, Italy and—uncharacteristically—the U.S. have distinguished themselves at trying to keep their aquaculture sector clean, adopting an integrated approach between both industry and conservation groups. Not so Chile—and that’s a big problem.

In the Correspondence column of the journal Nature, a doctoral student at the Max Planck Institute in Gottingen, Germany reports on a survey she conducted of salmon farms near the national park in the Aysen region of southern Chile. The area is an utter mess and the blame lies with the salmon—or, more specifically, the people raising them. Salmon feed and—no surprise—salmon waste flow from the contained areas into the surrounding fjords and  waterways, toxifying the environment for other fish. Medications that must be used to battle disease among animals kept in crowded conditions similarly leach into the surroundings—just as they do on cattle and chicken farms. What’s more, the nets that surround the farm areas often trap sea lions and other animals, and the noise pollution from supply ships and feeding machines confuses whales and dolphins and disrupts their communications.

Money, as always, is a big driver of the problem. Chile exports $2 billion per year in Atlantic salmon, to say nothing of what’s sold and consumed domestically. In some ways this is a very positive thing: fish is good for human health and robust  trade is good for a country’s economic health. But what’s good for the planet’s health counts too—and Chile, for now, is making the Earth a little sicker.