While Chile’s salmonids – Atlantic and coho salmon as well as rainbow trout – lead the way when it comes to the South American country’s aquaculture production, its mussels industry has long been a very important economic contributor and a major supplier to the overall global supply of these bivalves.
Chile’s mussel culture is based on the production of three main species: the chorito or Chilean mussel (Mytilus chilensis), which is known locally as “chorito” and is the best known internationally; the cholga mussel (Aulacomya ater); and the giant o r choro mussel (Choromytilus chorus). While most Chilean mussels are exported, all the cholga and giant mussels are consumed locally.
Mussel cultivation in Chile dates back to the 1940s when the over-exploitation of the cholga and giant mussels in the area between Valdivia and Chiloé in southern Chile led to experiments in collecting mussel larva for replenishing natural beds. By the 1960s, these efforts had resulted in Chile’s first farmed mussels, and by the end of the 20th century annual production was in excess of 60,000 tonnes.
Mussel production continued to expand through to 2008, when its exports achieved a then record value of USD 130 million (EUR 116.2 million), but then hit the brakes through a combination of the global economic crisis and environmental challenges, including a significant La Niña event. All of this predated the severe earthquake in February 2010, which disrupted normal water levels and currents at some farms, damaging stocks in the water and affecting mussel growth.
Despite these significant hurdles, production and demand has picked up again and last year’s Chilean mussel production totalled 89,944 tonnes. As a result, its exports increased by more than 8 percent to 69,700 tonnes last year – again confirming Chile as the world’s leading mussel exporting country.
Historically, Europe accounts for around 70% of Chile’s mussel exports, and in value terms, Chile exported more than USD 139 million (EUR 124.4 million) worth of mussels to the region last year.
Chilean producers have also experienced growing interest from China in recent years, with exports reaching USD 1.2 million (EUR 1.1 million) in 2015, and they expect this trade to escalate further in the years ahead, underpinned by China’s introduction of zero tariffs on Chilean seafood last year.
However, with production down this year due to the same algal blooms that have caused considerable problems in the country’s salmon farming industry as well as warmer temperatures, total export volumes and revenues are forecast to decline in the short-term.
Recognising the growing consumer demand for responsibly sourced and produced seafood, the Chilean mussel fishery and suspended culture, located in Region X of Los Lagos de Chile in the southeast Pacific Ocean in FAO Statistical area 87, became the country’s first fishery to become Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified.
This is an enhanced fishery which relies on mussel seed collection. However, neither feeding nor disease prevention takes place. Also, the habitat modifications are reversible and do not cause serious or irreversible harm to the natural ecosystem’s structure and function. Spain is the largest commercial market for the fishery’s harvest, followed by the rest of Europe and the United States. Mussels from this fishery are harvested mainly between October and July.
More recently, three mussel farm sites owned by Ria Austral SA have achieved certification according to the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) Bivalve Standard, as has a cluster of sites owned by Cultivos Azules SA.