Sea lice here to stay, Ewos cautions top Chilean salmon companies

Former Cermaq fish feed division Ewos warned the three largest salmon farmers in Chile against hoping for a "silver bullet" that would protect results from the sanitary threats the industry regularly face.

In a meeting in Puerto Varas (south of Chile) during an informative session organized by Cermaq, Ewos Chile's technical director Rodrigo Solervicens reminded the CEOs of Multiexport Foods and Cermaq, and Aquachile's managing director, that improving prevention was the best way to keep their corporations profitable.

"We don't have a real solution for sea lice --the biggest health problem in Chilean salmon farming-- so we will be living with it, for the time being," Solervicens admitted to an audience of mainly investment operators.

In a conversation with Undercurrent News, Cermaq Chile (the rebranded Mainstream) chief operation officer Francisco Miranda said the sea lice or caligus parasite had become the trigger of a "vicious circle imposing a very irregular behavior on business performance season after season".

In private, some analysts had revealed to Undercurrent their doubts about the financial muscle of Cermaq and other large listed salmon companies to offer attractive returns to prospective stockholders and banks.

But others, like Anders Gjendemsjo of Norne Securities, said he was confident the Chilean sector had learnt the right lessons after the 2007 crisis. "In the medium and long term, the salmon industry presents a perfectly reasonable outlook, and they are taking the adequate measures to avoid another sanitary debacle," he told Undercurrent.

Stina Nilsson, researcher at the Brazil branch of investment bank GES, also said Cermaq's figures were convincing enough that the Norwegian giant was putting in place a credible program to achieve higher stability.

Super Pacific salmon

During his presention, Solervicens introduced a new practice to fight fish illnesses. He said Ewos was experimenting with natural substances to boost the fish's own resources against pathogen attacks, 'training' them through a succession of trials. The development department has a budget of NOK 85 million, 10% of which is covered by external funding and tax deduction in Norway and Chile.

The fish feed firm is focused on nutrition research, he explained, and diets based on a set of bacteria in an attempt to restore internal balance. According to the scientific data already obtained, Pacific salmon has a stronger and faster response than the Atlantic variety, and is more resistant to caligus.

The next step in the investigation is to inject a harmless parasite in salmon so sea lice pathogens cannot recognize what species they attempt to infect.

However, "sea lice is a multifactor problem and companies should coordinate to combat it", Solervicens said. "If a company sporadically gets better at it, it just doesn't matter."

Industry consensus

Multiexport's CEO Jose Ramon Gutierrez agreed: "I'm a dreamer, I believe companies can come together, even if we all have different strategies. But progress will be slow and we have, at most, two years to implement the key changes we urgently need."

Gutierrez -- who in his talk said an 8% improvement in yield is an achievable goal -- acknowledged the Norwegian lead in bringing the Chilean top companies together and mentioned an earlier meeting six months ago hosted by Mutiexport.

From Aquachile, the largest salmon enterprise in the country, Alfonso Marquez summed his opinion with the catchy slogan "know your fish before thinking about growth". Marquez said the sector had been repeatedly hit by sanitary troubles and it has now lost its competitiveness to Norway's farmers.

"But challenges are part of our lives," he said. "The future is a long-term success story."

Cermaq's Miranda noted that the latest treatments adopted in the Chilean facilities had cut down parasitic loads by 30% and up to 50% in some cases. Miranda said Cermaq had the advantage of the added experience from its farms abroad, in Canada, Scotland and Norway.

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