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Going Green: Organic rules advance

However, few farmed finfish products would meet proposed standards

By Lisa Duchene
February 01, 2009

The high-end, Hawaiian farmed yellowtail known as Kona Kampachi® could be "the most politically correct fish to eat right now," declared a Vail, Colo., writer in summer 2008. But don't expect to see the fish sporting a U.S. Department of Agriculture organic label anytime soon.

Kona Blue Water Farms of Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, has taken many steps to farm fish in an environmentally responsible manner, including:

• using cutting-edge marine fish hatchery technology to hatch its fish without depleting wild stocks.

• raising zooplankton to feed the young fish and reducing the percentage of wild fishmeal in the feed from 80 to 30 percent.

• raising fish without genetic engineering, hormones or 
preventative antibiotics in open ocean net pens where the water quality is tested from seven sampling sites. Tests have shown no measurable impact on water quality from Kona Blue's open ocean cages.

The practices may represent the state-of-the-art in aquaculture, but they fall short under the proposed standards for organic certification of farmed fish approved in late 2008 by the National Organic Standards Board, which advises the USDA National Organic Program.

The proposed standards are still a long way from becoming official regulation. An administrative review and public comment period are yet to come.

But the NOSB step was a critical one, representing the first time the advisory board has approved any criteria for farmed fish since Congress passed legislation 
creating the organic program two decades ago. Environmentalists and the aquaculture industry have repeatedly locked horns over two issues: raising fish in ocean net pens where nutrient waste and escaped fish may threaten wild stocks, and raising farmed fish with fishmeal made from wild stocks.

At stake for producers is a share of the $23.6 billion organic food and beverage market. Seafood is the only major group of food products for which there are no organic standards. Producers can label their fish as organic if it's certified by a USDA-approved certifier, but can't use the "USDA Organic" label.

Consumer groups argue the integrity of the label is paramount and that consumers deserve to expect organic food meets very strict standards. Ninety-three percent of 1,001 adults surveyed by telephone in October 2008 said they expected fish labeled organic to be produced with 100 percent organic feed, according to research conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. In the same survey, 90 percent of consumers said organic fish farms should be required to recover waste.

"A large number of conservation, fishing and consumer groups have been and continue to be opposed to fishmeal-dependent species grown in open net pen systems being eligible to receive the coveted USDA organic label," says George Leonard, aquaculture director at Ocean Conservancy, a Washington, D.C.-based non-governmental organization that advocates for healthy oceans.

Leonard urged the NOSB to reject net pens and the use of fishmeal and fish oil.

Instead, NOSB allowed use of net pens and fishmeal under strict conditions. The board's approved standards require:

• farmers to recycle at least half of the nitrogen and phosphorus the facility generates.

• net pen facilities to grow only native species. (Non-native species or species selectively bred to differ from the wild stock are not allowed in net pens.)

• farmers to limit escaped fish to 0.5 percent of the cultured stock or risk losing their organic status.

• farmers using any feed made of wild fish and oil to ensure the fish is from a sustainable fishery, or trimmings and waste from a sustainable fishery, and to limit the wild fish and oil to 25 percent of the feed in the first five years, then steadily reduce that amount to 15 percent in years six through eight, 10 percent in years nine through 10, reaching a limit of 5 percent in the 11th year after standards take effect.

This last point is a contentious issue with many activists since certified organic livestock must consume 100 percent certified organic feed. But farmed fish have nutritional needs for fishmeal and oil and organic feed alternatives are not yet commercially available, said the NOSB in its recommendations. "Certified organic fishmeal and fish oil would be expected to become increasingly available in the future as the certified organic aquaculture industry grows," wrote the board.

Few, if any, aquaculture operations would qualify under what the NOSB passed, says George Lockwood, chairman of the Aquaculture Working Group, a 12-member group of scientists, fish farmers and conservationists appointed by the USDA. The group in the last few years hashed and re-hashed organic standards for aquaculture. In spring 2008, NOSB approved proposals for all aquaculture besides net pens and fish that require fishmeal and oil in their diets (and bivalve mollusks, an area that has not yet reached NOSB review).

By summer 2008, the Aquaculture Working Group reached unanimous consensus on those stickiest issues and took its proposals to the NOSB, which made significant changes at its November 2008 meeting in Washington, D.C.

"No net pen aquaculture operations of any species can comply with [these three] requirements," says Lockwood. The half-percent escape limit is "impossible to measure" using current technologies, says Leonard. "It's not nearly that precise."

Plus, the nitrogen-phosphorus requirement effectively bans many other forms of aquaculture besides net pens, he says. The only finfish aquaculture that Lockwood can imagine qualifying would be tilapia grown in recirculating systems in climates where temperatures stay above freezing, he says.

If terrestrial agriculture were restricted to only native species, says Lockwood, "certifiable [organic] chicken products would be restricted to jungle fowl grown in India. Likewise, certified turkey production would be restricted to domestic wild turkey strains that are basically unacceptable in the U.S. marketplace."

Neil Anthony Sims, president and cofounder of Kona Blue, concurs. An advocate of open-ocean aquaculture, Sims says Kona Blue could not capture 50 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorous because its independent water quality testing shows the nutrients assimilate so rapidly there is no detectable change in nutrient levels.

"It's impossible under these guidelines for open ocean aquaculture to be organic," says Sims. "[We] need to manage to minimize impact, and you don't do that by excluding open-ocean aquaculture from organic 
certification."

With the official standards potentially two years from completion, the organic farmed seafood debate is ongoing.

"We intend to be proactive in submitting our comments and to suggest corrections each step of the way until these regulations are officially accepted. So it is far from over," says Lockwood.

 

Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene writes about business and the environment from Bellefonte, Pa.

 

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