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Going Green: Tilapia talks

WWF's Tilapia Aquaculture Dialogues yield specifics on farming standards

By Lisa Duchene
February 01, 2010

Under scrutiny for the past 20 years, Regal Springs Tilapia in Bradenton, Fla., has run its farms in public waterways in Indonesia, Mexico and Honduras. So Mike Picchietti, Regal's president, knows the basics about environmentally and socially responsible fish farming: Treat workers right, don't feed the fish too much and don't pollute the water.

Then Picchietti spent four and a half years talking regularly with academic experts and environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as part of the Tilapia Aquaculture Dialogues organized by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). With input from one-dozen tilapia producers and 200 NGOs, the process yielded standards, finalized in late December, which set specific measurements and practices to define environmentally and socially responsible tilapia farming.

The Global Partnership for Good Agricultural Practice (GlobalGAP) will function as the certifying agency until 2011, when the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (launched by the WWF) is expected to be in place.

The first fish certified to the new tilapia standards - formally called the International Standards for Responsible Tilapia Aquaculture - is expected to reach market during the first quarter of this year, and Picchietti plans to apply for certification as soon as possible.

Certification appears within reach for operations representing 10 to 25 percent of current global production, says Aaron McNevin, senior program officer for WWF and chair of the steering committee for the Tilapia Aquaculture Dialogue.

Representatives from Aquamar, New England Aquarium, Rain Forest Aquaculture, Regal Springs and the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership also served on 
the committee.

"The strategy for WWF was to pick the largest producers," says Picchietti. "Three of the guys on the steering committee produce 90 percent of the fresh tilapia. I would say they've made a huge impact on that industry."

The new tilapia certification program adds another option for buyers looking for assurance of environmental and social responsibility. So far, 120,000 metric tons of tilapia have earned at least one star in the industry's Global Aquaculture Alliance certification program, meaning the production facility is certified.

"The main area where farms need to upgrade or reorganize themselves usually relates to effluent controls," says Daniel Lee, Best Aquaculture Practices standards coordinator for the GAA. "There are 
strict BAP effluent-water-quality limits for pond farms that often require special compliance efforts. For cage farms, restrictions on feeding rates vary, depending on the hydraulic characteristics of the water body."

The GAA standards include "provisions for fishmeal and fish oil conservation, to encourage efficient use of these ingredients in feeds," limit use of chemicals and require plants to test 
for antibiotic residues, says Lee. The GAA program includes traceability and food-safety components.

Tilapia is the only species for which there are both BAP standards and standards from the Aquaculture Dialogues. The Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, an environmental NGO in Seattle, expects to complete a side-by-side analysis of the two standards by the end of March.

For each of seven environmental and social impacts identified, the Tilapia Dialogue spelled out a guiding principle, criteria aimed at addressing the impact and a specific, measurable indicator.

To be certified, tilapia producers must culture fish species either native or already established in the receiving waters. In Africa, where tilapia is a native species, they must culture the same strain as found in local waters. The diet can include fishmeal but must produce a kilogram of tilapia for every 0.8 
kilograms of wild fish used in the feed and the wild stocks used in the fishmeal must have a Fishsource-database score that equates to a no-fail score from the Marine Stewardship Council. Farmers cannot kill any predators and must efficiently manage diseases, mortality and escapes so that they recover 65 percent of the fish they stock.

To limit excess nutrients from running off into the water, the standards require the difference between daytime and nighttime oxygen levels to be less than 65 percent.

McNevin points out that the standards measure what's in the water from all sources, not just what's coming off the tilapia farm.

"[Farmers] must maintain environmental integrity independent of what they do on the farm," says McNevin. "They must become stewards of the environment."

No wetlands can be sacrificed for the farm operation. To minimize fish escapes, the standard specifies equipment and practices and requires no less than 95 percent of the fish to be male or sterile. Transgenic fish are banned, as are preventive antibiotics and chemicals for pest or disease control banned by the importing or producing countries.

It's a pass/fail system, he says. "You either address 
the key impacts or you haven't addressed the key impacts. Period."

For social welfare standards, the Dialogues tapped Social Accountability International, a labor NGO, and based its standards on the core principles of the International Labor Organization, a social-justice and worker's-rights organization with offices worldwide.

In addition to assurance that the tilapia was produced in accordance with the 
standards, seafood buyers also receive some goodwill and probably freedom from environmental-NGO harassment, notes Picchietti.

"We sat down with conservationists and people in the social sphere and showed them what we're doing, 
and they showed us what they want us to do. We reached agreement on doing it. That has to buy the industry some goodwill so that we're not going to be attacked," says Picchietti. He believes certification will become more important with consumers, who will recognize the credibility of the WWF-led process.

Adversaries met face-to-face repeatedly during the Dialogue to break down the acrimony between environmental groups and the aquaculture industry. "We developed a level of trust," that was carried through the process, says McNevin. "I really do feel that we equally disgruntled people on both sides, and that means we've succeeded."

To Picchietti, the new standards prove the Dialogues successfully produced a binding document. "The seafood industry can now realize that it's not just 
talk," he says. "Finally, something happened."


 Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte, Pa. 



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