Opinion Column

The battle of the salmon starts at home

Published April 05, 2019

At the other side of the Andes, something which the press has called “The Battle of the Salmon” is taking place. It is led by environmental organizations and by a group of well-known Argentine chefs. With the hashtag #NoALaSalmonicultura (Say No to Salmon Farming), this social network campaign surpasses one million views and has the Chilean salmon farming as the greatest reference of what “is not wanted in Argentina”, referring to salmons’ environmental and health problems aging in captivity.

What sparked this controversy was the decision of President Mauricio Macri to develop aquaculture in Patagonia through an agreement signed with the Norwegian government. The repercussions did not take long to cross the Chilean border, with demonstrations that were replicated in Puerto Williams, as part of “binational actions” against the salmon industry.

Vis-à-vis with this campaign, the Chilean salmon farmers claim that the trans-Andean country is “misinformed”. However, they must acknowledge that the arguments used in the campaign can be traced to the images and distortions that are generated in our national territory. It is here, in Chile, where they have not managed to tear down the often negative image of the produce, and they have not really persevered in doing so given they are mainly focused in their markets of about 100 countries – some as rigorous as the United States, Europe, and Japan – where they have to meet increasingly demanding standards.

Chileans are clearly aware that the main product exported by the country is copper, but does anyone know that salmon is the second? Does anyone know that the salmon farming regions have the lowest unemployment rates in the country? Is anyone aware that in addition to the salmon farms, approximately 4 thousand SMEs have been developed under their wings? Within the aforementioned campaign, the impact of this enterprise on the economy of the extreme south of Argentina has been completely dismissed.

The salmon industry is aware of its mistakes, which in the past were extremely costly; but great achievements are also celebrated with the conviction that work, research, and generating new technologies must continue in favor of a more sustainable activity.

Do Chileans know that salmon farming companies are on a crusade to reduce the use of antibiotics? Have they heard that the salmon industry is focused on having culture centers free of chemicals and antibiotics? Has anyone been told that the salmon harvests go through an antibiotic deprivation period – mandated by the authorities – meaning there are no antibiotic traces when they reach the consumer? This is where we must highlight the role of public institutions (Sernapesca and Subpesca) that have been increasingly empowered and professionalized to establish controls and good practices in aquaculture.

The development of genetics, highly specialized diets, introduction of probiotics, new generations of vaccines, functional diets, automation technologies, among many other aspects, are among some of the advances that have led the Instituto Tecnológico del Salmón (Technological Institute of Salmon, Intesal, SalmonChile), to qualify the productive performance of the industry as the best in recent years. In terms of business, the descriptions are similar with historical yields for 2018 (11.4% more than in 2017, with sales over 5 billion dollars) and with companies’ consolidation processes that have led financial means to talk of the “aquaculture year”. But was this spoken of outside those specialized circles?

Disinformation is definitely installed at home, where we must work diligently to improve that perception. Volumes are not relevant, of course, but the image within the country of origin is very much so. Chileans, for better or for worse, are said to be the “ambassadors” of salmon and the ones to transmit the experience of having this industry in the country. This might not have much impact transcending to Argentina, but we do live in a globalized world -not even necessary pointing it out- with consumers that get increasingly informed through social networks and whose purchasing decisions weigh more and more on the sustainability factor. It is not a small thing to have a hashtag against you going around with thousands of “Likes”.

In order to like it one also has to try it, and there should be accessible products for the entire national population, to collaborate this way with the national objective represented by the campaign From the Sea to My Table (Del Mar a Mi Mesa), which I can proudly say is led by Subpesca and executed by Fundación Chile; it aims to increasing seafood consumption. Our road map’s goal is to raise the 13 kilos currently being consumed to the global average of 20 kilos, where salmon could well have a stellar role, as the main Chilean aquaculture product. Our countrymen’s health will be thankful, and it will be a positive impact on the image of the industry.

In parallel, by the way, it is necessary to continue recording sanitary and environmental advances for the salmon industry, which will always be a challenge, taking into account the evolution in the business models. It does not take a long coast like the Chilean or the Argentinean one for the aquaculture production, and in the future it could even be possible to start cultivating next to the market of destination, hence being able to do without importation.

When that happens, and ultimately the commercial paradigm shift comes, the Chilean salmon will be able to stay strong if and only if it has a great local image and an international reputation as a product of the utmost pristine waters, with the support of local promoters willing to speak spontaneously of its virtues. For that to happen, it first needs to “win the battle” at home.

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