Monday, April 13, 2009

Eating/Not-eating Chilean Salmon 3

Is salmon good for Chile’s economy and society?

I’ve been spending a lot of time reading and thinking about farmed salmon during the last three weeks. I first asked “Is it good for you?” and discovered that the answer is “maybe”: It’s really excellent nutritionally, but it is contaminated with organochlorides (PCBs, dioxin, etc.) and folks (especially women of child bearing age and children) should limit their consumption.

Then I asked “Is it good for Chile’s environment?” And the answer was “No!” It pollutes lakes and the sea, uses excessive quantities of antibiotics, introduces potentially dangerous fungicides and pesticides into the environment, threatens native fish species with its escaped salmon, and kills seals.

Today I hope to finish by examining farmed salmon’s impacts on Chile’s economy and society, and answering my original question: Should we take full advantage of this great and inexpensive fish, eating it frequently; or should we avoid it for our health, and our environment and society’s health?

Salmon in Chile’s economy

Chile has an export based economy. In 2007 exports are estimated at $66.4 billion US dollars, up from $59 billion in 2006 and $40.5 billion in 2005. In 2007 exports accounted for about 42% of GDP. Historically, copper has been Chile’s most important export, but salmon is a close second, at about $2.5 billion per year, 4% of total exports, and has been increasing.

Employment in the salmon industry is about 53,000, most of whom work in rural areas in the 10th region, where other work opportunities are limited mainly to tourism, timber, fishing and agriculture.

In a power-point entitled “The Salmon Economy and the Necessity for a New Deal" (linked to the Industry site “SalmonChile”) Princeton trained Economist Jorge Quiroz C. argues that with the salmon industry regions X and XI have had better rates of economic growth than the rest of Chile and have experienced in-migration. Salmon communities have lower rates of poverty and indigence and higher incomes for the self employed than nearby non-salmon communities. His table below compares poverty and indigence levels and self-employed incomes in salmon and non salmon communities. 2

Salmon farming is an important enterprise in Chile. It is the second most important source of foreign exchange, it employs large numbers of people in areas with few alternatives for employment, and has reduced levels of poverty and indigence and raised incomes in salmon communities.

So, to our questions, “Is salmon good for Chile’s economy?” the answer is clearly yes.

Is salmon good for Chile’s Society?

The salmon industry is drawn to Chile because of low wages and abundant (and free) clean waters. But are wages reprehensibly low?

In 2007 a delegation from the Norwegian National Workers Confederation came to Chile to investigate press reports about poor working conditions within Norwegian-owned companies, Marine Harvest and Mainstream. They found that while the Norwegian companies have higher wages than most other salmon producers, wages are still low:

…overall, Chilean salmon industry workers earn a gross average of 230,000 pesos (US$489) per month, which according to the Labor Ministry puts them close to the poverty line. After taxes the average monthly salary is just 188,000 pesos (US$400). Companies, including Marine Harvest and Mainstream, tend to pay a base salary that is actually less than the current minimum wage of 144,000 pesos (US$306) per month. Employers pay the remainder of workers’ salaries with a production-based bonus system.1

Unfortunately, low wages and questionable working conditions are common in such industries world wide: US chicken plant workers make around $7.50 an hour, about 2.5 times as much as their Chilean counterparts.  But US per capita income is roughly 3.6 times higher than Chile’s ($45,850 vs. $12,590 in 2007), so Chilean salmon workers seem to receive a larger share of their nation’s income than US chicken workers.

Salmon plant workers, Marine Harvest photo.
Critics also cite problems in working conditions in the Industry, such as “lack of adherence to regulations including weak hygiene and security standards and poor safety conditions for working at sea, with an important number of fatal accidents among divers (eight since 2005)".4

And economist Quiroz, cited above, notes that salmon communities experience tensions related to culture change, population growth, and environmental problems, and compared to the rest of their regions they have lower levels of medical care, potable water and electrification. Other salmon industry social issues include labor conflict over wages and working conditions.

What do residents of Chile’s salmon communities think?

SalmonChile, the Salmon industry’s public relations web organ, sponsored a public opinion survey by Universidad de Los Lagos in the salmon communities, and published a power-point presentation of the results. While the presentation did not specifically address whether those sampled thought the industry was good for the region, 75% agreed that the salmon industry had generated benefits for their community and only 7% disagreed. Data on the opposite question (“Has the salmon industry generated problems for the community?”) was not provided.
In response to other questions 33% of respondants thought that the salmon companies were concerned about their communities, down 6% from 2005, and 35% thought they were not; 43% agreed that the industry followed labor regulations (35% among industry workers) and 20% did not; and 49% gave the industry positive grades of 5 to 7 (good-very good) for the role it plays in the environment, 14% gave it a 4 (passing), and 21% gave grades of 1 to 3 (not passing). 5

Given the mixed attitudes evident in the industry’s presentation of this report, one suspects that the full report might be less positive, but overall, it suggests that more people think the industry is good for the area than think that it is not.

Against the Current poster “This business smells bad”
Those who disagree include the Association of Aysen Artisan Fisher Organizations, who have urged a boycott of Chilean farmed salmon  and other organizations such as the Association of Magallanes Tourism Companies (AUSTROCHILE) and environmental organizations Oxfam and Terram, have called for a moratorium on expansion of the industry southward. 6

So, as I asked in the beginning “Should we take full advantage of this great and inexpensive fish, eating it frequently; or should we avoid it for our health, and our environment and society’s health?”

Is Chilean farmed salmon good for you?  Yes, the positives (omega 3s) seem to outweigh the negatives (contamination). .
Is it good for Chile’s environment? No
Is it good for Chile’s economy? Yes
Is it good for Chile’s society? Most people in salmon communities seem to think so, thought there are clearly problems.
Here are my conclusions:

1.  I like salmon. Other things being equal, I’d like to eat salmon once or twice a month, and as a 60+ year old man it would be good for me. The toxins are in a relatively safe range, and the Omega-3 acids are a plus for us potential heart attack candidates. (Note 2011: Current research suggests that "...for farmed salmon, the cardiovascular benefits are greater than the cancer risks by a factor of at least 300:1")

2.  I don’t like what it does to the Chilean environment and I generally support the Seafood Watch campaign, which suggests avoiding all farmed salmon, so other things again being equal, I’d probably avoid it. (Note 2013: Monterrey Bay Aquarium Seafood watch now lists farmed Chilean salmon produced by Verlasso as a "good alternative.")  

3.  But other things are not equal. I live in Chile. I want to see Chile’s economy prosper, and salmon are good for the economy. People in salmon communities seem to think it’s good for their communities too.

So, where are we? Based on what I've learned here I’m not going to boycott Chilean salmon; but neither am I going to be a regular customer. I’ll buy it a few times a year and I’ll support efforts like those of Oxfam/Terram to push for improvements in the industry’s environmental and labor standards.

And you?

And for other Chilean seafood, see these links:

1. Ríos, Javier López. Chile Salmon and Trout Report - April 2008 The Fish Site. On line at
2. Quiroz C., Jorge Mayo, 2007 La Economía del Salmón y la Necesidad de Un “Nuevo Trato” on line atía%20del%20Salmón%20y%20la%20Necesidad%20de%20un%20nuevo%20trato.ppt
3. New Oxfam-Terram Camaign Targets Chile Salmon Industry, The Patagonia Times, Tuesday, 15 January 2008, on line at
4. World Bank, Key Development Data & Statistics, on line at,,contentMDK:20535285~menuPK:1192694~pagePK:64133150~piPK:64133175~theSitePK:239419,00.html
5. Estudio De Percepción De La Industria Salmonera: Tendencias Y Perspectivas, Septiembre Y Octubre 2007, Salmon Chile, on line at
6.  Aysen Group To Launch Chile Salmon Boycott, The Patagonia Times, Aug 1,2008, online at


  1. I believe that nowadays the Chilean salmon industry is not the big industry that once was. With the arrival of the ISA virus, the profits fell in a big dramatic way, and therefore the big firms are moving their operations elsewhere, setting off a rise in unemployment, a fall in economic growth, etc.
    It is the same scenario as in Lota Schwager (coal mine-based town)...

  2. Marcelo,
    Thanks for commenting. You are right—just this week more layoffs were announced. But production of rainbow trout, which is immune to ASA, is increasing substantially and I suspect that in the long term effective vaccines will be developed. I also think that Chilean salmon production is here to stay—it is economically more viable than European or US production, the industry can become more efficient, the product is less contaminated that European salmon, and wild salmon is becoming increasingly expensive and threatened. Perhaps this episode will lead to a more socially and environmentally friendly industry. I hope so; I’d really like eat more salmon.


Sorry, no more anonymous posts. I was getting too much spam. Email me (see my profile) if you would like to comment and have no account. Jim