Chilean Salmon Farming’s Amazing Comeback
Daniel Pauly, marine biologist at the University of British Columbia, says we’re close to harvesting the last wild fish from the sea. If we do, we’ll have no choice but to eat farmed fish. Figuring out how to farm sustainably without bringing unbearable pressure on wild stock seems like a wise course. Perhaps we should save wild fish for special occasions, as we do wild meat, and the rest of the time eat what’s farmed by viable methods.
A good half of all seafood consumed by Americans comes from aquaculture of some kind — shrimp, oysters, branzino, Arctic char, and of course, Atlantic salmon. Seventy-five percent of the world’s fisheries are either fully fished or overfished, says the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s time to face up to the need to farm fish sustainably.
A lesson in how to do that is dramatically present in Chile’s far south where I was a guest recently of SOTA, Salmon of the Americas, an organization that promotes Chilean salmon aquaculture. The southern third of that long nation is a coastline of spectacularly indented fjords and islands washed by deep, chilly waters surging up from Antarctica. This nutrient-rich environment is prime salmon-raising territory, as ideal as the coasts of Norway or the lochs of northwest Scotland. Although not native to the Pacific, Atlantic salmon thrive on Chile’s clean cold water and strong currents.
Chile’s salmon saga
Salmon farming is relatively new in Chile, but in just a couple of decades the country surged to second place in salmon production, rivaling only Norway. Then, in 2007, a calamitous epidemic of Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) broke out, decimating farms and threatening Chile’s industry with complete collapse. By 2009, production had dropped by almost 60%, and Wal-Mart, a major buyer, turned to Norwegian suppliers. Chilean processors closed their doors, fish farms shut down and thousands of workers lost their jobs.
Such a scenario was predictable, observers said. Chile had become an international scandal, notorious throughout the tightly knit world of salmon aquaculture for crowded cages, polluted waters and abundant use of antibiotics and pesticides, including those banned by the United States and other countries. In 2005, the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) censured Chilean salmon operations. But producers were on a financial roll. “In the middle of a party, it’s difficult to communicate that something’s not right,” says Adolfo Avial, an industry consultant who sounded an early warning. “They didn’t want to see the problem.”
I was expecting the worst as I headed south from Santiago, Chile’s capital. I’ve visited salmon farms in the past, in Maine (a state that vaunts rigid environmental regulations for fish farming) and in Scotland’s extreme northwest. In both places I was impressed by the concern for environmental issues. Salmon farmers on both sides of the Atlantic have adopted more sustainable practices, combating disease through inoculation rather than medication, strengthening barriers between farms and the open ocean, and cutting back radically on the amount of wild fish necessary to provide meal and oil for salmon diets.
How Chile’s industry came back from the brink
What I found in Chile was an incredible story of the rebirth of a moribund industry. If it took disaster to bring Chilean salmon producers to their senses, the remarkable part of the story is the rapid recovery. On my weeklong visit to areas around Puerto Montt, I followed the salmon cycle, from the hatchery where eggs spawn, through the developing smolt stage, to sea cages and finally, two years after spawning, to the plant where mature fish are processed, filleted, thoroughly deboned, sometimes smoked and then flown to Miami where fish arrive within 18 hours.
Salmon quality, whether live fish leaping in cages or glistening rosy fillets on assembly lines, was impressive, as were the biosecurity measures employed. Everywhere, our group donned protective gear similar to that worn by plant workers, stepping through sanitizing pools, sometimes not daring to breathe to protect the atmosphere. This striking reform distinguishes Chile from more relaxed standards I’ve seen elsewhere. Other reforms were less visible: cage density, for instance, is reduced from 23 kilos per square meter to less than 14 kilos, so fish mortality has dropped from 15% to 0.2% per month, and growth rate has improved. Another important change: Fish are no longer transferred from cage to cage, mixing up different year classes and making it impossible to trace problems back to their source. Just as with humans, this kind of promiscuity is infectious.
ISA, which researchers compare to human influenza — omnipresent but seldom infectious — is no longer virulent in Chile in part because of biosecurity, and also because fish eggs, a suspected disease vector, are no longer imported, and the fish are inoculated against ISA and other diseases.
The end result is a bigger and better industry providing consumers with a product that is not just safe and inexpensive, but also delicious. The driving financial impetus, in other words, is product quality, and here Chile is clearly a leader. The salmon I saw and tasted was first-rate. If this keeps up, Chile’s salmon revival is guaranteed.
And if we fish-lovers hold the wild catch for truly special occasions, we’ll be a step closer to saving our oceans as well.
Chilean Salmon Fillets With Almond-Caper Sauce
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1 head garlic
4 boneless fillets (about 8 ounces each) of Chilean salmon
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil (Chilean, if available)
¾ cup dry white wine, preferably a Chilean viognier or sauvignon blanc
1 small onion, chopped
1/2 cup toasted almonds, chopped
4 tablespoons salt-packed capers, well rinsed and dried
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. Separate the individual cloves of garlic but do not peel them. Set the cloves on a baking sheet and roast for 15 minutes.
3. Sprinkle the fish fillets on both sides with salt and pepper.
4. Use a little of the oil to grease an ovenproof baking dish, then arrange the fish steaks side by side in the dish and pour the wine and remaining olive oil over them. Cover the dish and transfer to the oven to bake for 20 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, peel the garlic and chop the cloves. Combine the chopped garlic with the almonds and the onion in the bowl of a food processor. Add 3 tablespoons of the capers and pulse briefly, just to crush the ingredients and mix well — but do not make a paste.
6. When the salmon is done, remove the fish from the baking dish and keep warm on a platter. Bring the broth left in the baking dish to a boil, then reduce heat to low. Stir in the almond paste and simmer until the sauce is thick. Top the fish with the sauce and garnish with the remaining capers.
Photo: Chilean salmon. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins