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I remember the first time I tasted wild salmon. I was almost 10, and my dad had just returned from two weeks fishing the Whale River in Ungava Bay, Northern Quebec. This was 1974, and my dad brought two big crates with two 15 lb fish, packed with peat moss, sawdust and dry ice. The stories my dad told of these big leaping fish, the rugged beauty of the land, camping in tents and cooking over fires made the fish taste wild. I wanted to go and catch my own salmon and eat it. That didn’t happen for a while.

The best seafood I’ve ever tasted was a salmon I’d caught 15 minutes before I gingerly grabbed pieces of it out of a smoldering, greasy pan during a downpour at Twin Pools on the LaPoile River in Newfoundland in 2011. We’d hiked seven miles of terrain that ranged from peat bogs, to dense forest and giant boulders. I felt like I was in Middle Earth. No plates. No silverware. One crumpled napkin. No seasoning save for the dregs of some salt and pepper the guide scraped out of his coat pocket. He had to lean over the pan with his rain jacket flared while the tender pink flesh glazed over in the hot butter.

Nothing has topped that experience, before or since.

I think back on those experiences when I think about how far we’ve pulled away from our food sources. I can only imagine what the Atlantic salmon populations were like before we started damming their spawning habitats and fishing them with wanton abandon.

I guess the rise of salmon farming was an inevitable consequence of Atlantic salmon’s broadly appealing taste and appearance, even as the fishery collapsed over the last hundred years. The intentions may have been somewhat innocent, if a bit naïve, at the outset. But naturally, the rush to make these struggling, expensive operations profitable, if not solvent, perhaps bypassed some warning signs. The push to accelerate time-to-market as well as gross pounds produced has yielded some unpleasant results.

Bloom to bust

Look no further than the train wreck that is the Chilean salmon farming industry. The second largest producer of farmed Atlantic salmon in the world (Norway is tops), Chile’s industry had a terrible first half of 2016. In a four week span in late February and early March, four of the nation’s top producers lost more than 9 million salmon to an algal bloom that released a deadly bacteria, killing more than $70 million worth of product. Total salmon losses since this first reported algal bloom or red tide are estimated at around 25 million salmon weighing about 100,000 metric tons or 15% of the country’s total production. Chile scientists blame the algal bloom on unseasonably warm temperatures due to El Nino. I’ll get back to that.

Authorities dumped thirty percent of the dead fish in a landfill, the rest in the ocean. A few weeks later, giant flotillas of dead sardines, jellyfish, birds and some mammals washed up on Chile’s shores, which were also covered with dead clams. Commercial fishermen reacted, complaining the die-offs and the federal closures of nearby fishing grounds were a direct result of bad aquaculture practices.

To protest, they set up blockades effectively stopping transport of any of the surviving farmed salmon to market. At one point, producers were losing $10 million a day related to both the die-off and the delivery interruption, with estimates at about $800 million total loss.

Irony you say? Hold on, it gets better.

Antibiotics to the rescue?

The just desserts, if you could call it that, to this festering stew of salmon, bacteria and political angst is a recent appellate court decision forcing the industry to reveal just how much antibiotics each of its producers has used. The decision came in a lawsuit filed by Oceana, claiming international markets had a right to know how the world’s 2nd largest farmed salmon producer treated its fish. Until this decision, the true depth of Chile’s antibiotic use had been somewhat cloaked.

Now we know. And the details are stomach churning indeed. Government statistics released a couple of weeks ago show the proportion of antibiotics to tons of salmon increased from 2014 to 2015, during which time producers used 1.23 million pounds of antibiotics on about 895,000 tons of fish. On average, producers used about 660 grams of antibiotics per ton. One company, Australis Seafoods used 1,062 grams of antibiotics per metric ton of fish.

For comparison, consider that in 2008, Chile fed 385,635 kilograms of antibiotics to its salmon. Norway, the world’s largest farmed salmon producer? 941 kilograms.

So why is this such a big problem? For starters, it’s not good to ingest antibiotics unless you absolutely need them. You may have read about concerns over superbugs, or antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In essence, bacteria like E. coli or salmonella continue to evolve in their own quest to survive. And thus, some strains have developed a resistance to the antibiotics we would use to kill them, making us more susceptible to the nasty diseases these bugs can produce.salmon pen

Consider some frightening statistics from the US Center for Disease Control: An estimated 2 million people in the U.S. become infected with antibiotic-resistant bugs, resulting in 23,000 deaths. Now consider that some of the antibiotics used in aquaculture operations outside the U.S. have been deemed carcinogenic by the Food and Drug Administration.

No thanks.

Now let’s get back to the rise of the algal blooms in Chile. As I said, local officials claim the unseasonably warm temperatures gave rise to the situation. There is truth in that statement. However, scientists believe there is another direct cause. Concentrations of tens of thousands of fish in close proximity swimming in their own feces leaves them vulnerable to disease. So the farming operations dump tons of antibiotics as a preventative measure against the disease. They also throw in tons of pellets to feed the fish.

Now imagine a veritable rainfall of feces, undigested food and antibiotics landing on the ocean floor. There’s a lot of excess nitrogen and phosphorous introduced to the ocean ecosystem that in theory would otherwise be balanced. The extra nutrients create an environment more suitable for algae to grow than most other organisms. And it grows quickly, sucking up much of the available oxygen and releasing a deadly bacteria that ultimately kills the fish. The fish die and the bacteria have more “food.”

Worse still, the antibiotics used against the primary salmon-killing bacteria, SRS, aren’t working, according to an official with the National Service of Fisheries and Aquaculture (Sernapesca).

So if you’re keeping score, Chile salmon farmers are pounding their product with antibiotics that aren’t really working. And consumers are paying for it.

I’d call that a real loss on many, many levels.

We’ll talk about the global impact of finfish aquaculture in further posts, and explore some operations that are taking a better approach.

 

Resources

Here are some additional links to interesting info about aquaculture:

Lenfest study on aquaculture pollution

National Geographic glossary on algal blooms

World Wildlife Fund Report on environmental impacts of aquaculture