Chile’s began farming Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) towards the end of the 1970s, which makes it a relatively young industry. Nevertheless, over the course of the next three decades, the South American country transferred, adapted and developed technologies, products and markets to become the second largest salmon producer of in the world.
The total volume of salmon produced in Chile didn’t exceed 10,000 tonnes until 1991, but by 2005 its annual output had soared to 350,000 tonnes.
Regrettably, the impressive growth and commercial success of Chile’s salmon farming wasn’t matched with equal levels of regulation, research and monitoring to safeguard the industry against biological risks. In 2007, the sector was hit by an outbreak of the infectious salmon anaemia virus (ISA).
Unfortunately for Chile, the impacts of this outbreak were magnified due to the rapid spread of the virus along with the high concentration of salmon farm sites in certain areas and also poor husbandry and biosecurity standards.
It should also be noted that prior to the ISA crisis in 2007/2008, a number of other infectious diseases had been detected in the industry.
In terms of production, export and social losses, infectious salmon anaemia is the most serious viral disease affecting farmed Atlantic salmon, causing severe losses to infected farms.
Symptoms include a paling of the salmon’s gills, swelling of the liver and spleen, and internal haemorrhaging. While it can be lethal to fish, it does not affect humans.
The illness was first discovered in 1984 on fish farms in Norway. Since then, it has affected a number of key production locations. Because of its capacity to quickly develop into an epidemic, the industry is always swift to attempt to eradicate or control its presence wherever it occurs.
As well as suffering losses of around $2 billion, the Chilean industry saw its production of Atlantic salmon fall by half, causing tens of thousands of workers to lose their jobs.
In the years that immediately followed the ISA outbreak, Chile set about cleaning up its act with a thorough overhaul of its salmonid farming industry. It is widely agreed that one of the most important aspects of this recovery has been the collaboration between the industry and government to implement regulations and management regimes that have improved the sector and brought gradual recovery.
New measures continue to be introduced and it is generally accepted that farm performance has now surpassed pre-ISA levels, which suggests better production management. At the same time, the salmon harvest volume has exceeded the pre-outbreak peak of 400,000 tonnes. Last year, the country harvested more than 550,000 tonnes of Atlantic salmon.
However, the new farming methods have significantly increased production costs. When factored in with the increased supply and subsequently reduced prices, many salmon farmers have begun to experience losses — a challenge that the sector will want to quickly reverse. Nonetheless, Chilean salmon now appears in more than 70 markets worldwide, and is the country’s second largest export product after copper.
Pittman Seafoods sources its Atlantic salmon from both Chile and Norway. Two years ago, it became the co-owner of Puerto Varas-based Omega-C Foods, teaming up with two Chilean partners. Utilising its considerable salmon expertise, the joint venture owns and operates its own production plant.