It has been widely reported that a harmful algal bloom (HAB) has caused the death of millions of farmed Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) in southern Chile this year, with many of the leading production companies in the region affected.
HAB still remains a threat to Chilean production, further heightening concerns about future supplies and prices. At Pittman Seafoods, we feel it’s important to take stock of the current situation and to try and provide a balanced outlook based upon what we currently know.
Chile has long been established as the second largest salmon-farming nation in the world (behind Norway) and was forecasted to produce 630,000 tonnes of fish (Whole Fish Equivalent) in 2016. The South American country’s output for 2017 was expected to be around 10% less than 2016 due to farms stocking less biomass in an attempt to improve profitability. Now, following the recent HAB event, analysts are anticipating that both Chile’s 2016 and 2017 volumes will be reduced by another 15–20%.
While sea lice challenges have grabbed the headlines—with the naturally occurring parasite costing salmon producers hundreds of millions of dollars on an annual basis—algal blooms, particularly HABs, can be just as lethal to stocks.
An algal bloom is a rapid accumulation of freshwater or marine algae. However, as the name suggests, HABs are much more threatening as they involve toxic or other harmful phytoplankton. They can cause adverse effects to a wide variety of aquatic organisms, including marine mammals, seabirds and, of course, finfish.
In the case of the latter, not only do the blooms suffocate the fish by removing oxygen from the water, but some plankton species have sharp spicules that can damage gill tissue, making fish stocks more susceptible to disease.
From a fish farming point of view, if a bloom is detected early enough, farm managers have a number of measures they can take to mitigate their impact. These include:
- Halting feeding protocols, thereby encouraging fish to stay deeper in the water column
- Deploying protective barriers around cages
- Using compressed oxygen pumps in the cages and pumping up unaffected water from deep below the cage site.
Increasingly, satellite and remote monitoring systems are also being used to forecast HAB events.
Expert opinions on the main cause of HABs are divided. But it is generally accepted that, in the majority of cases, they are a natural phenomenon and can occur in diverse habitats, ranging from relatively pristine offshore waters to nutrient-enriched near shore sites.
At the same time, the frequency and severity of HABs in certain geographical regions have been linked to increased nutrient loading from human activities. And while the aquaculture industry is, on occasion, cited as a potential contributor to the problem, it can point to regular blooms in regions where fish farming doesn’t take place.
Furthermore, while they do occur in Chile most years, the latest bloom has been intensified by the effect of El Niño.
At present, it’s too early for Chile’s salmon producers to confirm how much the latest HAB will cost them or the sector as a whole. Historically, when such large mortalities have occurred, fish farmers have suffered huge financial losses—although this time around most of the big players have already announced that the lost fish were covered by their insurance.
From a broader supply chain viewpoint, though, with the large mortality levels and less product being available, it is increasingly expected that salmon prices will increase—at least in the short-term. We will simply have to wait to see by how much and for how long.
Pittman Seafoods sources its Atlantic salmon from both Norway and Chile, and also has its own production unit in the latter.