License to krill

Mountingly meaningless

Increasingly meaningless

Two days ago, the gavel came down in an adjudication decision which may, more than any other recent hammer-strike, determine the future of fishing: The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) officially bestowed its blue-and-white fish-check label to a massive factory operator that targets Antarctic krill.

This is not a good thing.

Antarctic krill are tiny shrimp-like crustaceans that cluster in vast multitudes (known as “blooms”) in the waters of the Southern Ocean.  They form a critical building block in the oceanic food web: small fish consume the krill before being eaten themselves by seals, penguins, toothfish, and other animals.  Krill are also a primary source of nourishment for migratory whales — in fact, the majority of the world’s baleen whales journey to the southern ocean to feed on krill and replenish their energy supplies after depleting their reserves during their mating and calving seasons.

While krill in their vast numbers do seem on the surface to be an “inexhaustible resource,” one would hope that, by this time, we have learned that this mindless assumption will never be accurate in regard to any of the inhabitants of our finite planet.  There is no such thing as an inexhaustible resource.  Ask any great auk or passenger pigeon, they’ll tell you.

Oh, wait — you can’t ask them.

Because there aren’t any left.

Because there’s no such thing as an inexhaustible resource.

Trouble bath

Trouble bath

There are a few things that we are certain of about krill.  The first is that the tiny animal, like many other sea creatures — especially crustaceans — is vulnerable to climate change, especially through the ocean acidification trends resulting from the rising levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.  Nowhere in the Marine Stewardship Council certification system are the potential effects of climate change even discussed, let alone taken into account by the methodology.  Strike one.

Next, we know that Antarctic krill exist in the Southern Ocean – an area adjacent to a land mass that is uninhabited by humans.  The simple fact that we are sending fishing vessels into this area bespeaks an unsustainable paradigm, known as finite expansion.  There is a certain amount of ocean on this planet.  That we continue to fish farther, deeper, and longer simply underscores the fact that we are not approaching the management of our oceanic resources from a sensible and comprehensive standpoint that would account for the idea that one day – one day quite soon, actually – these fishing boats are going to bump up against the ice shelf.  No more expansion.  What then?  The Marine Stewardship Council methodology again fails to even consider these perspectives, concentrating instead on discrete management techniques that do not consider the idea that sustainability is more than a fishery-by-fishery label – it is a way of looking at the world.  Strike two.

A tiny mystery

Little critter, big mystery

Finally, we know that we have only a very rudimentary understanding these tiny animals.  Krill have been studied only cursorily and we have almost no knowledge of their life history and behavior.  It is irresponsible in the extreme to proceed with the certification of a fishery that is so cloaked in mystery – we have no idea what kind of damage we could be doing.  Strike three.

And yet in the face of all these worries, the rubber stamp comes down and the MSC pronounces the krill fishery to be sustainable.  Let’s not forget that vehement objections to this certification have already been lodged by the Pew Environment Group and the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition.  These objections were overruled — but let us not forget that the three strikes listed above were not taken into account in the decision, as they are simply not part of the MSC methodology… and if something isn’t part of the system, it apparently doesn’t have any relevance on reality.  Or so the adjudication decision would lead one to believe.

In search of pink gold

In search of pink gold

There is a conceptual concern here too.  The certification of this fishery gives an unofficial nod to the basic idea that vacuuming up the tiny life forms forming the foundations of the oceanic ecosystem is an acceptable practice.  In reality, it’s not.  Even the United States fishery management authorities banned fishing for krill in US waters, specifically to allow it to remain in the ocean as a food source for other organisms.  Legitimizing and expanding Antarctic krill fishing is simply transferring our unceasing resource demand to a hitherto unrecognized protein source.  This is not the way to move forward – in fact, pulling too hard on this loose yarn just might unravel the whole tapestry.

The certification of krill makes no sense.  It’s a minuscule building-block animal on the other side of the world that simply doesn’t belong to us.  We can’t even eat it – the krill will just be used to make oil, fish food, and other rendered products.  And for this, we may end up short-changing whales, toothfish, seals, and other animals – all because the powers that be refuse to look at the entire issue from a larger perspective.  Fishing for krill will not feed the world — but it just might end up starving it.

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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.


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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One whisker closer to success

Apologies for the delayed update; the week managed to get away from me.

Getting an earful

Getting an earful

The fourth meeting of the Pangasius Aquaculture Dialogue (PAD4) transpired much like its predecessors, at least in my experience.  While the stakeholder representation was diverse and thoroughly sampled many different sectors involved in the Southeast Asian catfish farming industry, the double-whammy of a grueling agenda and our reliance on consecutive translation rather than simultaneous managed to impede our work early on.  While much of what needed to be discussed was indeed brought to the floor, many of the critical subjects at hand were not explored as thoroughly as they deserved.  Aside from this, however, the meeting was actually quite productive.

It’s interesting to be involved in this process; to see the sausage-making that goes on inside the box of certification development.  The attractive thing about the PAD is that its structure, like that of the other Aquaculture Dialogues, truly does endeavor to make that box as transparent as possible.  In fact, that is the primary reason why I believe that this process may actually succeed.

Yeah, but what does it mean?

Yeah, but what does it mean?

Much of the criticism of other aquaculture certification groups, such as the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA) and GlobalGAP, is based on the fact that during the formative stages of these institutions, neither transparency nor full stakeholder participation was emphasized.  Many environmental groups challenge these standards on this principle.  If neither the reasons nor the process behind a given set of benchmarks are open to examination, how can one truly buy into the idea that a certification is indeed a marker of sustainability?

Over the last few PAD meetings, I’ve been privileged enough not just to participate and have my say on how I feel the standards should be set, but also to be able to interact with other stakeholders whom I may never have met otherwise.  It’s not every day that someone like me, a Greenpeace Campaigner, gets to sit down with thoughtful, articulate representatives of feed companies, major retail operations, and production facilities, and talk shop over duty-free scotch or a cold mangosteen smoothie.

The active word in this whole process is “dialogue,” after all (forgive the archaic spelling).  It’s a chance to not just have one’s say, but to listen to others as well, and hopefully to emerge from the process with not just another line item crossed off one’s agenda, but with a deeper and more multi-dimensional understanding of the issues at large.  To be perfectly honest, when I first came to the PAD two years ago, I was demanding standards and benchmarks that were based in part on simple ignorance.  I’ve learned a great deal from the other people within the PAD – from the small-scale Vietnamese farmers to the French importers, and from my supposed enemies among big business to my quotidian contemporaries within the environmental movement.

Sure was simpler with the Smog Monster

Sure was simpler with the Smog Monster

No, I don’t think everything emerging from the PAD is perfect.  There are still some nascent standards (especially regarding the feed chain, chemical use, and water pollution issues) that must be tightened up – and trust me, I’m not letting it go without a fight.  But in spite of this, I marvel at how much I haven’t had to fight for, and at how many times we’ve all really wanted the same thing.

Environmental sanctity.  Animal welfare.  Social justice.  A healthy, productive Mekong Delta, and a prosperous population dwelling within it.  There is no arch-villain opposing these ideals, scheming in his underground lair as to how to best ravage the environment and enslave the local populace.  Instead, there’s a diverse group of individuals with a surprising amount of commonality amongst their goals and ethics… and who all happen to have an inexplicable fascination with all things catfish.

Let's not get carried away here...

Let's not get carried away here...!

I’ve found myself energized by what the PAD theoretically stands for — the idea that, in order to save this planet and heal our oceans, we must work together.  We environmentalists must check our pride at the door and work hand-in-glove with those same forces that we had once dismissed, belittled, and demonized.  This kind of unity can straddle cultural and political divisions, and can forge new pacts between erstwhile foes.  It is a truly powerful force, and just maybe, it can help to forge a better world for all of us.

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