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Marine Harvest Chile risks losing concession over major salmon escape

Some 40,000 fish have been recaptured by fishermen so far.

Marine Harvest Chile is racing to recapture as many salmon as possible with the collaboration of local fishermen to avoid a fine or even losing its concession at its Punta Redonda site, in Los Lagos region, after a massive escape was reported on July 10.

The cages contained a total 930,000 salmon, of which 680,000 escaped following days of strong winds during which no one was able to access the site for security reasons.

As soon as conditions improved 250,000 fish were recovered with wellboats.

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Marine Harvest has 30 days since the incident – extendable for another 30 days – to rescue 10 percent of the escaped salmon, around 68,000 fish, or it could face a fine or even the withdrawal of its concession, Adrian Maldonado, communications and corporate social responsibility (CSR) manager at Marine Harvest Chile, told IntraFish.

“We're doing everything to recapture the salmon," he said.

The company took down the pens following the incident and it has no immediate plans to rebuild the center, since the neighborhood is due to go into a fallow period until April 2019.

“The fish was going to be harvested in September, and after that we wouldn’t have stocked it for the next period, so we disassembled the cages and it will remain like that,” Maldonado said.

Marine Harvest has to buy the fish from the vessels to send it to its fish oil and fishmeal reduction plants.

“We don’t have traceability records for these salmon, so we need to process it as fishmeal and fish oil” Maldonado said.

However, some of the fish are also being sold to consumers directly by the fishermen, Arturo Clement, president of Chilean salmon farming association SalmonChile, told IntraFish.

According to him, tests have been run and the salmon complies with Chilean health and safety regulations.

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The Chilean law doesn't contemplate farmed fish caught by fishing vessels, which has led to a legal loophole in cases like these. The escaped fish had an average weight of 3.4 kilograms.

"The fishermen own the fish once they catch it, and they are selling it to consumers," Clement said.

Investigation is ongoing

The pens collapsed due to strong winds, but authorities are currently still investigating the state of the cages -- and if Marine Harvest was at fault.

According to Maldonado, the cages "were completely new," and were used for the first time when the company stocked these salmon in 2017. They are working with the authorities, and providing all necessary documentation, Maldonado said.

Environmental groups have also criticized the company claiming the escaped salmon could put wild fish populations at risk.

“There are no records of Atlantic salmon ever establishing in these waters, which means it's not comparable with escapes of Pacific salmon species or trout," Maldonaldo said. "But we are doing everything to recapture all the salmon.

"That’s where all our efforts are at the moment," he said.

It remains unclear how much of the fish is still out there due to the high presence of sea lions, he added.

Despite reports on Chilean media of an estimated loss of $7 million (€6 million), Maldonado said the company has not yet looked into the real financial impact of the incident.

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