The question of certification

Setting the stage for sustainable aquaculture

Setting the stage for sustainable aquaculture

There is no debate about the part that aquaculture will play in tomorrow’s seafood industry.  It will be huge.  The titular role.  The eponymous lead.  The center-stage dynamo that gets the snazzy technicolor jacket and all the catchy solos.  Lo, for we have seen the future of seafood, and like it or not, that future is farming.

Just in the last decade or so, we’ve watched the percentage of the overall seafood supply that is sourced from aquaculture operations grow from 25% to 50%.  No doubt we will soon see a world where most of the fish we consume are raised in farms.  With this in mind, it’s no wonder that the seafood world is all agog over a long-awaited development in the aquaculture industry that finally came to pass a few days ago.

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First to the finish line

The World Wildlife Fund, in conjunction with industry, government, and NGO representatives, has created a standard for tilapia farming through a multi-stakeholder process known as the Tilapia Aquaculture Dialogue (affectionately referred to as “the TAD“).  This is the first of many forthcoming standards stemming out of the larger Aquaculture Dialogue process, which focuses on species rather than on countries, regions, or technologies.  The TAD standard is the result of a exhaustive four-year process that has resulted in an ISEAL-compliant set of certification metrics by which the performance of tilapia farms can be measured.  Participating farms that meet the standard’s benchmarks are eligible to receive certification.

In the future, this standard (as well as all future Dialogue-driven standards) will be held by a body known as the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, or ASC (sound familiar?)  The ASC is slated to open its doors in 2011.  In the interim, the TAD standard will be temporarily held by GLOBALGAP, a veteran agriculture certification organization which ironically may soon find itself in an rivalrous relationship with the nascent ASC.

Um... no

Um... no

I did not participate personally in the development of the TAD, but I have been fortunate enough to be involved in the Pangasius Aquaculture Dialogue (that’s right… the “PAD.”  There’s also the “BAD,” the “ShAD,” the “SCAD,” the “TrAD“, and the “SAD“.  Can you guess what they stand for?)  As I wrote in a recent post, I’ve learned a lot from my involvement in the project and I do think that it has the potential to lead to positive change.  That being said, I have to ask — are we chasing the right paradigm here?  Can certification really play the panacea to all our seafood woes?

What are your thoughts on this?  Is certification the way forward?  Will a “sustainable” certification be enough to both appease demand for eco-friendly seafood and to protect the natural world?

To catch an eel

To catch an eel

We’ve seen what happens when unchecked aquaculture is unleashed upon the environment.  The 1980s and 1990s saw the destruction of countless square miles of mangroves by relentless shrimp farming operations.  The cost of conventional salmon farming on the ecosystems of British Columbia and Chile is too high to compute.  American and European eel populations have declined by 90% in the last 20 years due in part to the insatiable elver abduction scheme that fuels the unagi industry.

There are some that would say that certification falls short; that we need top-level policy that governs the way fish farms operate.  By way of example, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has drawn fire for dubious decision-making in regard to numerous fisheries.  New Zealand hoki is MSC-certified “sustainable”, yet it is considered an unacceptably destructive option by many environmental organizations and has even been boycotted by Waitrose, a major retail chain in the United Kingdom.  More recent MSC certification projects, such as Ross Sea toothfish and Pacific hake, have drawn fire as well.

The people's swamp

The people's swamp

Still, fisheries are not the same as fish farms.  They are national resources, not industrial enterprises, and thus are managed (at least ostensibly) by a central governing body.  Fish farms are largely beholden to their shareholders and operate as designed by their architects.  They are not pulling from the same communal resources, per se, as a national fishing fleet… or are they?

When a salmon farm dumps pollutants and parasites into the nearby ocean, causing harmful algal blooms and sea lice infestations in wild fish, are they not drawing on a natural resource?  When a shrimp farmer turns a mangrove swamp into a pile of mulch, does he not deprive other stakeholders of ecosystem services?

So what’s the way forward?  Does it make sense to pursue a third-party certification system?

Notorious notary?

We’ve already taken a few stabs at this, but have come up short each time.  The classic example of certification causing unease is the Marine Stewardship Council — an organization which, although originally predicated on good intentions, now threatens to undermine the very credibility of seafood sustainability on a conceptual level by brandishing its rubber stamp of approval so liberally.  In the aquaculture arena, the current standards (primarily those developed by GLOBALGAP and the ACC/GAA) have been heavily targeted by scientific and environmental groups critical of their weak benchmarks, closed-door standard development process, and industry-dominated governance structures.  The Aquaculture Dialogues, ostensibly based on an open stakeholder process, were supposed to be a response to these shortcomings.  But is a better standard what we should be working towards?

Some would argue that rather than putting our resources into third-party standard development, we should be pressuring governments to institute domestic policies that will eliminate wasteful and polluting aquaculture practices and reward responsible and innovative producers.  But is this feasible?  Do the governments of major aquaculture centers in the developing world — Vietnam, Indonesia, and India come instantly to mine — have the capacity to develop and enforce these policies?

Signs of the times

Signs of the times

Still, it’s not just about the effectiveness of the process.  Equally important is the perception of that effectiveness in the eyes of the consumer.  To put it another way — which course of action will best promote the growth of a sustainable economy by increasing the sales of environmentally responsible seafood?  When you go to your local grocery store to buy seafood, which gives you more confidence at the point of sale: a third-party “sustainable” certification stamp, or a “Product of Thailand” label coupled with the awareness that Thailand has instituted a sustainable aquaculture policy?  Which do you trust?  Which one makes you want to buy fish?

It’s a thorny issue, no doubt about it.  I’m eager to hear your thoughts on this.

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4 Comments

Tamara Cameron
Dec 23, 2009 at 12:26 pm

I agree that something must be done to preserve our oceans, waterways and aquatic animals – and done NOW. Farming of fish for food seems inevitable. As a consumer, I would like to see a sustainable certification from a 3rd party that is not government. At this point, I buy very little fish because I don’t want to contribute to over-fishing. And farm-raised fish, knowing how they are raised, just seem gross. I think government regulation is a long way off. Governments are like large ships. They turn slowly. I would want to know that the private certification was “real” and not just something fish farmers paid for or blew kisses at. . . a certification with a set of environment and health regulations that must be renewed yearly and is enforced 100%. I would like to eat fish that is good for the environment and good for my health, both.


 
Becky Selengut
Dec 23, 2009 at 12:52 pm

I’d be much more likely to “trust” an independent, international certifying agency than individual country’s efforts, especially if this agency had teeth in the form of regular inspections.


 
Braddock Spear
Jan 3, 2010 at 7:56 pm

It’s hard for me to completely trust anyone at this point. I don’t mean this in a cynical way. It’s just that ‘sustainability’ is such a generalized concept, I feel most of the time we’re going to have to buy our sustainable seafood with a bit of blind faith. Seeing third-party certification labels and knowing certain countries are taking steps to improve sustainability gives me comfort. But those of us who face this issue will have to keep educating ourselves and asking questions. Until consumers, businesses, and governments are closer to the same page, I think a dose of skepticism all around is a good thing.


 
Jacqueline Church
Jul 15, 2010 at 12:03 am

This is a thorny topic for all the reasons you and others here mention. I think we need action on both fronts. Pressure on governmental bodies to protect natural resources and to manage fisheries responsibly is urgently needed. At the same time, third party certification helps consumers and may also result in changes up the retail chain (e.g. Big box stores). I think Brad is spot on – consumers must be vigilant and pretty relentless with the questions we ask. I do worry that MSC has diluted its effectiveness or integrity with its more recent certifications.


 

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