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A team from the Ross School of Business immersed themselves in the salmon farming industry in Magallanes, in the Patagonia region of Chile. As part of their multidisciplinary action project (MAP), they worked to identify the qualities that make salmon from this region unique and to make recommendations on marketing strategy. They worked with the Asociación de Productores de Salmón & Trucha de Magallanes A.G., a trade organization that includes six production companies. Zach Friedman was one of the students, and he talked with the Erb Institute about his team’s consulting project.

What was your team brought in to do?

We worked with an association of salmon farming companies, helping them to develop a unified marketing strategy to sell their salmon in the U.S. as a premium product that is distinct from salmon elsewhere in Chile. 

We spent a month in the Magallanes region, understanding what makes this region so unique and special, and researching what attributes consumers seek and appreciate in their salmon—and identifying the overlap and the gaps for producers in this region to position their salmon appropriately as a premium product.

How did sustainability fit into the project?

Part of the reason these producers want to distinguish salmon in their region from salmon that comes from the rest of Chile is that, historically, Chile does not have the best reputation for sustainability practices. So we worked to identify potential issues in the Magallanes region, and our final recommendation included ways these six producers can work together to address sustainability issues there and also become leaders in the salmon farming industry globally on some issues of sustainability.

For example, farmed salmon traditionally is shipped packaged in Styrofoam boxes, with each fish in its own box. So, for producers in this region who want to position their product as premium and on par with some of the most responsibly produced salmon in the world, we recommended that they invest in packaging innovation, to move away from Sytrofoam and adopt more sustainable packaging.

Other issues related to the use of antibiotics. Historically, the overuse of antibiotics has been an issue for Chile, so we recommended that the six producers work together to develop standards for their production so that they can, as a group, manage their collective practices in a sustainable way.

What did you learn from the experience?

I learned a lot about just how complex and difficult change within an industry can be. This was an association of just six producers, but each has its own unique priorities and objectives. Even though they shared the same goal, it was challenging to balance all of their priorities. I can only begin to appreciate what sorts of challenges arise when doing this at larger scales.

Did the experience change your perspective of sustainability issues in business?

One broader lesson I learned was that it may seem easy to label something as sustainable or not sustainable in a vacuum. But none of this exists in a vacuum, and the more we zoom out, the more complex these systems and their effects on the planet become.  

For example, there’s a compelling argument that salmon farming is a good thing, because stocks of wild fish in the ocean are being depleted, and aquaculture helps protect those stocks. There’s an argument against that: that aquaculture—especially when you have fish that are not native to a region—can jeopardize the local ecosystem. Now, another argument in favor is that the more available and accessible salmon is, perhaps the more people turn to it as an alternative to beef—and the environmental impact of beef production is worse. However, the benefit of reducing beef production is mostly concentrated in the U.S., and, in this case, salmon production is concentrated in this remote region of Chile—so the benefits of eating more salmon and the threats it causes are felt in different parts of the world. It’s difficult to determine what the tradeoffs are, which communities benefit and which take on all the risk. These are complex issues, and they’re global.

What else stuck with you from the experience?

We had the chance to see firsthand how unforgiving the labor in this industry is. We visited a sea farm, situated offshore about an hour-and-a-half boat ride away from port. There was a storm, and we ended up in this farm for 14 hours, suffering from sea sickness, trying to leave on one boat and having the engine break, and then getting on a boat with the workers who had just completed their harvest and were trying to sleep. It was very much an imposition to have seven extra people on their vessel, but they showed us such hospitality. It instilled in our whole team a deep appreciation for all of the difficult labor that goes into making sure people have fresh salmon available.

Also, I was not ready for just how beautiful the Patagonia region is. We had the opportunity to visit Torres del Paine, the preeminent national park in Chile, and it one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen.

How do you feel about what your team achieved?

We realized that this project was the beginning of the leaders of this industry bringing together all of the major actors to begin to work toward collective action—toward addressing the root problems. It was exciting for us to realize that we were working with them on the cusp of this action.

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