Chile’s salmon industry, the second-largest in the world, is trying to cut back its heavy use of antibiotics, which pollute the environment and could cause new super-bacteria to emerge.
Facing heavy competition from top producer Norway – whose salmon industry uses a fraction of the antibiotics Chile’s does – Chilean salmon farmers, pharmaceutical groups and fish food suppliers have launched a programme to kick their controversial habit.
Chile’s coastal waters have recently been awash with a bacteria called Piscirickettsia salmonis, which causes a disease in salmon known as SRS.
The illness causes bright pink sores to form on the fish’s flesh. Last year it killed nearly 80% of the salmon that died of disease on Chile’s fish farms.
Vaccines and treatments have had little effect so far, giving rise to rampant antibiotics use.
But that carries a stigma the industry now wants to shed.
“Chilean industry is convinced we need to take concrete measures to collaborate on drastically reducing the use of antibiotics,” said a joint statement announcing the new programme.
The initiative is called Pincoy, the name of the masculine spirit of the seas in local lore.
The problem with antibiotics is they leach into the surrounding environment.
That creates the risk that bacteria in the surrounding area will develop resistance after prolonged exposure to the medication, mutating into super-bacteria capable of causing incurable diseases.
Environmentalists have taken the Chilean salmon industry to task.
“In Chile, we use 500 times more antibiotics than Norway,” said the head of conservation group Oceana-Chili, Liesbeth van der Meer.
The group in June scored a victory when a court ordered salmon farmers to publish the amount and type of antibiotics they use.
The answer was troubling: 557.2 tons of medication were injected into Chilean salmon last year, according to the national fisheries and aquaculture service, Sernapesca.
Total salmon production was 846 163 tons, meaning the “antibiotic rate” was 0.066%.
That was a sharp increase from 2010, when the rate was 0.031%.
Project Pincoy’s mission is to reduce the dependence on antibiotics with vaccines, selective breeding techniques, improved diets and better screening.
“It takes a wholistic approach, looking at preventive aspects as well as genetic factors and functional foods that strengthen the health of the fish,” said Sernapesca’s Alicia Gallardo.
But there is no easy solution to SRS, experts warn.
“The threat of this disease will always be there,” said Ronald Barlow, head of the Chilean subsidiary of Dutch fish feed maker Skretting.
Salmon farming in Chile began decades ago, when the fish were artificially introduced in the country’s south.
The farms today are key to the economy, with annual sales of $3.5bn. Their top export clients are the United States, Japan, Russia and Brazil.
The industry as a whole is responsible for 70 000 jobs.