« February 2009 Table of Contents
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,
• 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
• 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
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
"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
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
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.
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
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,"
Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene writes about business and
the environment from Bellefonte, Pa.