U.S. salmon farmers said a flood of cheap salmon imports from Chile has them so seriously penned in that they're studying a federal dumping complaint as a means to stave off bankruptcy.

Pete Granger, executive director of the Washington Farmed Salmon

Commission in Bellingham, Wash., said the low price of Chile's salmon could wipe out salmon farming in the Pacific Northwest and at least seriously damage producers in Maine.Salmon farming is a $120 million-a-year industry in the United States, with growers in those two states producing about 13,000 tons of captive salmon in pens for commercial consumption.

"If prices continue at current levels, however, there will be no farmed salmon industry in Washington state within a few months," Mr. Granger said.

Wholesale salmon prices have dropped 35 percent in the last few weeks, falling from about $2.95 a pound in September to current levels of around $1.95 a pound, he said.

The prices are so low that some U.S. producers already are convinced they are being sold in the United States for less than what it costs Chilean growers to produce and fly the fish to Los Angeles or Miami.

U.S. law prohibits such dumping of goods produced outside the United States, but the domestic industry must document that dumping takes place on a sustained basis to win relief from the International Trade Commission, Mr. Granger said. That often takes months and can cost as much as $1 million.

"That's why we have not yet filed a complaint," he said.

Maine's congressional delegation, however, has called upon the Clinton administration to take action against Chilean producers.

U.S. producers would like to see Chilean salmon farmers freeze more salmon during the current worldwide glut of salmon, Mr. Granger said. He acknowledged, however, that the species of salmon grown in Chile has color and oil problems if kept frozen more than a few months.

Rodrigo Infante, general manager of the Association of Chilean Salmon Farmers, said he believes salmon farmers should campaign to increase the demand for salmon rather than use trade barriers to limit supply.

"It's unfortunate that a few American salmon farmers apparently find themselves in a desperate situation," he said in a statement released in Seattle. "We would like to see higher prices, too, but we don't control the market."

Kristen Lidtke, U.S. representative for the Chilean trade association, said Chile estimates that it provides less than 30 percent of the fresh and frozen salmon sold in the United States. Alaska had a record catch this year and Canada produced high volumes of both wild and farmed fish, she noted.

But salmon farmers in Chile also contend that their production prices are lower than those in either the United States or Canada, where there are fewer sites for salmon pens and farmers must show that their pens are environmentally sound and not visually offensive.

"We in Chile believe in a free market and open competition," Mr. Infante said in his statement. "Protectionist moves will not provide a cure for what ails today's marketplace."

Other representatives from the Chilean association argued that U.S. producers are reaping a harvest they sowed when they won protective tariffs against Norwegian salmon farmers, tariffs that diverted Norwegian salmon to Europe.

Cheap Norwegian salmon made it difficult for Chile to sell salmon in Europe, driving Chilean production into the U.S. market instead.

The Chileans warned that barriers against their salmon would divert Chilean salmon to Japan, where it would displace U.S. salmon from Alaska.