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OSLO, Jan 19 (Reuters) - Marine Harvest, the world's biggest fish farmer, bought a 43 percent stake in AquaChile on Monday, picking up another asset in a market where prices have been depressed due to fish health issues and a lack of capital.
Marine Harvest, controlled by shipping tycoon John Fredriksen, agreed to merge its local subsidiary into AquaChile, the country's largest salmon producer, in exchange for a 42.8 percent stake, while also taking an option to raise its stake to at least 55 percent after mid-2016, it said in a statement.
Chile is the world's second biggest salmon farmer after Norway and Oslo-listed Marine Harvest has already purchased farming capacity in September, while Japan's Mitsubishi purchased Cermaq, one of the country's top producers.
The deal also comes weeks after AquaChile dropped its bid for smaller domestic rival Invermar.
Although salmon prices have risen in recent years, Chile has failed to fully benefit from the boom because its farming sector is fragmented, lacks capital and operates with relatively high costs due to recurrent problems with sea lice.
The merged business, which will have an annual capacity of 260,000 tonnes of salmon, will keep the AquaChile name and will remain on the Santiago Stock Exchange.
"The combination will be an important part of further improving the sustainability of Chilean salmon production through better risk management control and optimization of logistics, which in turn is expected to lead to improved fish health and more efficient production," Marine Harvest said.
As part of the deal, the Puchi and Fischer families, who controlled two thirds of AquaChile prior to the merger, agreed to reduce their stakes after June 15, 2016 to give Marine Harvest at least 55 percent, if it exercises its option.
In the fourth quarter, Marine Harvest produced 105,000 tonnes of fish, above expectations for 100,000, while its operational earning before interest and taxes (EBIT) fell more than 50 percent to 990 million crowns ($130.8 million). (Reporting by Terje Solsvik and Balazs Koranyi, editing by Louise Heavens)