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Chilean Salmon Farms Hit by Predictable Virus Plague

Diseases linked to overcrowding promote overuse of drugs; virus fiasco leads giant U.S. grocer to shun Chilean Salmon

by Craig Weatherby

Time and again, factory-style salmon farms have suffered devastating epidemics of a viral disease called infectious salmon anemia (ISA).

And now the problem has spread to Chile's infamously sloppy salmon farming operations, which are mostly run by big European firms.

Key Points

  • Overcrowding invited a devastating viral infection, despite disasters in Europe brought on by similar practices.
  • Virus fiasco echoes experience with sea lice on British Columbia's Salmon farms.
  • Epidemic highlights the power of Salmon factory farms to evade regulation in regions that want jobs.

Incredibly, these firms experienced the same problem in Europe for the same reasons... a textbook case of repeating the same mistake and expecting a different outcome.

About one in three Chilean salmon are sold in American restaurants and food markets, including Costco and Safeway stores.

Last week, Safeway announced a decision to reduce purchases of Chilean Salmon, sending shock waves through Chile's $2.2 billion farmed Salmon industry
 (Cherry D 2008).

Costco says its quality inspections will screen out any problem fish.

A predictable problem: The history of ISA infections on Salmon farms

Factory salmon farms in Norway, Scotland, and Eastern Canada have all fallen prey to this disease, which thrives when the underwater pens used to grow farmed Salmon are grouped too closely together, to save costs.

The ISA virus was first detected in 1984, in Norwegian salmon farms. Claims that it would remain isolated to Norway proved false when ISA appeared in New Brunswick (Canada) salmon farms in 1996.

The virus reached Scottish salmon farms in 1998: the year when ISA infections forced a quarter of New Brunswick's salmon farms to close temporarily and led operators to slaughter more than 1.2 million farmed Atlantic salmon in an effort to control the disease.

In October 1999, biologists with the Atlantic Salmon Federation discovered wild Atlantic salmon infected with the ISA virus in New Brunswick's Megaguadavic River, which was the first documented instance of wild salmon carrying the deadly virus. The Atlantic Salmon Federation biologists also discovered the source: escaped farmed Salmon with ISA.

This virus can be carried by escaped farmed Salmon, and by the sea lice that plague overcrowded Salmon farms.

This makes industrial salmon facilities breeding grounds from which the deadly viral infection can and does spread to wild fish, including wild salmon.

Virus appears on Chilean farms, virtually invited by crowded conditions
ISA was first detected in Chilean farmed salmon last July in crowded aquaculture areas in Region 10
the so-called Lakes regionwhich hosts most of the industry.

(We've reported on problems at Chile's salmon farms before: see “Chile's Salmon Farms Accused of Drug and Worker Abuses.”)

Spreading much faster than expected, the virus was detected further south just six months later, on a salmon farm in Chile's Region 11.

As The New York Times wrote last week, “Some say the industry is raising its fish in ways that court disaster, and producers are coming under new pressure to change their methods to preserve southern Chile's cobalt blue waters for tourists and other marine life” (Barrionuevo A 2008).

The Times ran this cogent quote from Dr. Felipe Cabello, a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at New York Medical College, who has studied Chile's fishing industry: “All these problems are related to an underlying lack of sanitary controls. Parasitic infections, viral infections, fungal infections are all disseminated when the fish are stressed and the centers are too close together” (Barrionuevo A 2008).

The ISA virus is not harmful to humans, but it can make the fishes' flesh mushy: one reason why Safeway is cutting back on Chilean salmon.

And in recent years, the same conditions that led to its appearance in Chile induced many other illnesses. Even salmon farming companies admit that these other, non-viral, infections have forced them to use of large amounts of antibiotics, including, critics note, veterinary antibiotics banned in the United States.

Observers in Chile note that there is a huge black market in antibiotics in Chile, whose regulators have not yet created a system to reliably record the useor abuseof anti-bacterial and anti-parasite drugs.

Major Salmon farmer admits to profit-induced indifference
To date, the ISA virus has mostly affected salmon raised by Marine Harvest, a very large Norwegian company that produces about 20 percent of Chile's farmed salmon.

The New York Times story also featured some mind-boggling admissions from Marine Harvest spokesman Arne Hjeltnes, who admitted that antibiotic use was too high in Chile and that crowding between fish pens had contributed to the problems.

Mr. Hjeltnes said that Marine Harvest welcomed tougher environmental regulations.

But one wonders why a large, operationally savvy Norwegian salmon farm company would need to be told to follow the steps they took in Norway years ago.

The answer, from Marine Harvest's press person, boggles the mind: “Some people have advocated that this industry is too good to be true. But as long as everybody has been making lots of money and it has been going very well, there has been no reason to take tough measures” (Barrionuevo A 2008).

Mr. Hjeltnes went on to tell the Times that the current crisis was “eye-opening,” even though his company experienced ISA epidemics in Norway, created by the same conditions the company has created in Chile.

Far-reaching ripple effects of Chile's Salmon farms

Dr. Cabello told the Times that antibiotics residues have been detected in Chilean salmon exported to the United States, Canada and Europe.

And he estimated that, compared to Norway and the US, salmon producers in Chile use 70 to 300 times more antibiotics.

While legal in Chile, some of these antibioticssuch as flumequine and oxolinic acidare not permitted in American aquaculture and their use in aquaculture can create bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics used to treat human infections.

Last summer, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration blocked the sale of five types of Chinese seafood because they contained residues of fluoroquinolones and other chemicals (See "Foreign Shrimp Farms Drive Health and Eco Dangers").

If you think that the only problem with raising salmon under these conditions is the risk of eating antibiotic residues, think again.

It's been proven that farmed salmon feces and food pellets lower oxygen levels, thereby killing other marine life and spreading disease.

In addition, as the Times reported, “Escaped salmon are eating other fish species and have begun invading rivers and lakes as far away as neighboring Argentina, researchers say.”

In a 2005 report, Europe's Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) criticized Chile's salmon-farm industry sharply, and said that Chile needed to ensure several improvements:

  • Stop the ongoing escape of about one million farmed salmon a year.
  • Reduce excessive use of antibiotics.
  • Keep salmon waste from killing the ecosystems surrounding their pens.
  • Ensure an ecological balance in lakes (used to raise Salmon fry).
  • Enforce conditions that will eradicate infectious disease.
  • Control the use of toxic fungicides like green malachite.
  • Better regulate a colorant (canthaxanthin) used to make farmed salmon red, which has been associated with retina problems in people.
  • Strengthen enforcement capacities.
  • Apply the “polluter pays” principle in Chile's aquaculture industry.

Frankly, it seems unlikely that Chile's salmon farming industry will do enough to approach true sustainability... which must include effective protection of wild salmon and all other marine life.

Many observers say that is impossible for salmon farms to accomplish true sustainability.

The most pointed, perceptive quote in The New York Times' account came from Wolfram Heise, director of a Chilean marine conservation program: “It is simply not possible to produce fish on an industrial scale in a sustainable way. You will never get it into ecological balance” (Barrionuevo A 2008).

For more on the fraught topic of salmon farming, see some of our prior reports:


  • Barrionuevo A. Salmon Virus Indicts Chile's Fishing Methods. The New York Times, March 27, 2008. Accessed March 27, 2008 at
  • Cherry D. Safeway to back off Chilean Salmon. April 2, 2008. Accessed April 6, 2008 at
  • Cipriano RC. Infectious Salmon Anemia Virus. United States Geological Survey National Fish Health Research Laboratory. Fish Disease Leaflet # 85. 2002. Accessed online April 6, 2008 at
  • OECD. Environmental Performance Reviews: Chile. January 24, 2005. Accessed online April 6, 2008 at
  • The Fish Site. Politicians Demand Immediate Crack Down on ISA. March 27, 2008. Accessed online April 6, 2008 at
  • The Santiago Times. The Salmon Industry is Doing it Wrong. April 4, 2008.   Accessed online April 6, 2008 at
  • Thomson Financial News Ltd. ISA problems slam Marine Harvest Q4. Accessed online January 16, 2008 at

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