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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.

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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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Mekong delta blues

I’m in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and I’m not here for the sushi.

As difficult as it is for sushi snobs such as myself to accept, there is a whole world of fish and seafood outside of our comfortable little tatami rooms.  In fact, it’s because of trouble on a distant front – the murky waters of the catfish industry – that I’ve crossed the Pacific to participate in a series of meetings here in Southeast Asia.

Endangered species

Endangered species

The fisheries that we have traditionally relied upon for our fish sticks, surimi, and Filet-O-Fish sandwiches are showing signs of distress.  First it was Atlantic cod, which we fished to death in 1960s and 1970s.  In the years following, various stocks of haddock, plaice, and similarly uncharismatic fish began to flag, mainly in the Baltic and North Seas.  As I mentioned in a recent post, even Alaska Pollock, which had for years been heralded as an inexhaustible source of cheap, mediocre fish protein, is starting to tank.  This ominous pattern spells trouble for the oceans, but it’s also worrisome for those megacompanies that have built their empires atop a foundation of inexpensive, lightly breaded marine life.

The question has become a manner of simple logic for these large corporations.  Ocean conservation and ethics aside, companies like Bird’s Eye, Gordon’s, and McDonald’s want to be able to sell their whitefish products throughout this bright new 21st century of ours.  This becomes a rather unlikely possibility when one considers that there may be virtually no whitefish left to sell in the coming decades.

So what do these seafood buyers do?  Boundlessly pragmatic, they begin to look for a new source of comparable whitefish, one that can withstand the demand pressure from all the people out there that are shaking their fists in the name of fish sticks.

In other words, these companies need a sustainable fishery.  For this is indeed the very essence of the word’s meaning, in a literal sense – a resource that can be exploited without compromising its capacity for similar exploitation in the future.

Thus do the eyes of the world’s seafood merchandisers turn to the smoky, motorbike-infested streets of Can Tho, Vietnam.

Catfish country

Catfish country

Can Tho is the center of the Vietnamese pangasius catfish farming industry, a burgeoning enterprise if ever there was one.  Two distinct species of pangasius are farmed in any significant amount: Pangasius hypopthalamus (marketed as tra or swai) and Pangasius bocourti (sold as basa).  These South Asian river fish are much like our Mississippi-born domestic channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus), with a similar bewhiskered countenance and the same muck-dwelling habits.  They are raised in ponds, enclosures, and cages all along the muddy banks of the creeping Mekong River, and over the past five years or so have been snapped up in exponentially increasing quantities by a European Union that is starving for whitefish.  In fact, with crashing cod and Pollock stocks contributing to a flood of unanswered demand, pangasius is quickly becoming one of the main fish fingers in the dyke.

Meow?

Bad kitty

Unfortunately, the pangasius industry is fraught with all manner of problems.  Abuse of chemicals and antibiotics, unchecked resource use, massive environmental negligence and rampaging cascades of effluent are threatening the entire ecosystem of the Mekong delta.  Concerns about health issues related to pangasius products are common, and western consumers are meeting the incoming catfish with anything from light skepticism to blaring sirens and biohazard-level health alerts.

Catfish cascade

Catfish cascade

Luckily, there is a ray of hope for both the eco-loco and the health nuts.   Championed by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the creation of a new aquaculture certification body known as the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) is underway.  It is the hope of all concerned that this standard will separate the wheat from the chaff within the industry, as well as raise the quality bar in general.  A farm’s acquisition of the standard is theoretically linked to its production of a more desirable product on the market.  This type of commodity differentiation would then lead to higher profits for those that invested in running a cleaner and more responsible operation.

This is the fourth meeting of what is known as the Pangasius Aquaculture Dialogue (PAD), a subset of the ASC process.  I will be posting an update on the progress of this round of meetings later in the week.

I know catfish is far from the most interesting subject out there, but this industry has grown by orders of magnitude in the last decade, and we must give it the attention it deserves.  The creation of a strong and defensible certification standard for pangasius farming is absolutely critical if we are to save the ailing Mekong River from a fishy free-for-all.

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