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Going Green: Responsible aquaculture 101

Farm certification programs offer assurance, drive improvement

By Lisa Duchene
January 01, 2010

Any high-volume foodservice or retail operation needs farmed shrimp, salmon and tilapia to make its numbers work. Aquaculture now produces half the global seafood supply, which makes it all the more important that farms act sustainably.

The Marine Stewardship began its certification program for wild product 10 years ago. Now third-party certification programs are driving improvement in aquaculture, says Barry Costa-Pierce, director of the Sea Grant program at the University of Rhode 
Island and editor of Ecological Aquaculture .

"We've come so far from where [aquaculture was] in the early 1990s," says Costa-Pierce. "[Farming fish] is 
inherently more efficient than farming of any other animal and the world's going to need this."

Ecologically responsible aquaculture, at the volumes of farmed fish the market requires, is absolutely within reach, says Costa-Pierce. "Yes. They're doing it."

Thousands of experts have been hashing these issues out for years to create standards and certification programs.

Three programs lead the pack: the Global Aquaculture Alliance's Best Aquaculture Practices, the World Wildlife Fund's Aquaculture Dialogues and GlobalGAP. WWF is creating an Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) that will certify to standards developed in the dialogues. Meanwhile, GlobalGAP will also certify to the dialogue standards, until 2011, when the ASC is scheduled to be operational, according to a partnership announced last June.

GAA and WWF are racking up key partnerships from big players. Some producers and buyers are involved in both programs. Kroger, for example, participates in the WWF dialogue process and in mid-December was expected to announce support for the GAA/BAP certification program.

Collectively, certification is helping aquaculture deliver product to market with a lighter, more responsible environmental and social impact, says Costa-Pierce.

Cooke Aquaculture, the farmed salmon and trout producer out of New Brunswick, Canada, is moving to an ecosystems approach, says Costa-Pierce, and innovations in fish feeds away from wild fish to agricultural sources are nothing short of "phenomenal," he says.

"These are the kinds of things coming up right now. You have aquaculture and fisheries companies worldwide that are completely aware of the triple bottom line [economic, social and environmental responsibility]," says Costa-Pierce. "And they're planning for that triple bottom line in a strategic way and implementing it and measuring impacts and communicating those."

That paradigm shift is the most significant reform needed, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, which has laid out the key principles for responsible aquaculture (see Section 9 of the code, found at http://www.fao.org/

Key environmental issues regarding fish farms, says FAO, are fish escapes, habitat destruction and pollution.


Making sense of alphabet soup 

One huge feather in the cap of the Global Aquaculture Alliance's BAP program is that it has already certified 120 processing facilities representing 1.1 billion pounds of farmed product annually. Some of that product is also certified to the farm level and the total includes 425,000 metric tons of certified shrimp representing 60 percent of the market, 120,000 metric tons of tilapia and 40,000 metric tons of catfish.

The program covers food safety, traceability, social and environmental responsibility and is ISO-compliant, explains Peter Redmond, the GAA's VP of market development and the former seafood buyer for Walmart. Standards have been developed for shrimp, tilapia and channel catfish farms, hatcheries and processing facilities. Standards for feed mills are in the works as are standards for pangasius. Redmond hopes the GAA will have a standard for farmed salmon complete by the middle of 2010 and for mussels later in the year.

The program works on a star system: One star indicates production facility certification, two extends to the farm, three extends to the hatchery and, eventually, four will mean certification extends to the feed mill.

Among GAA's key partnerships: U.S. Foodservice for its Harbor Banks private-label catfish, tilapia and shrimp, and retailers Topco and Sobey's. Four of the top five U.S. retailers, two of the three top Canadian re-tailers and three of the top six U.K. retailers all require BAP-certified products, notes Redmond.

World Wildlife Fund's aquaculture certification program grew out of its aquaculture dialogues, a five-year process that gathered 2,000 key representatives of industry, academia and 90 non-governmental organizations around a collective table to hash out standards. There are eight ongoing dialogues for 12 different species, including shrimp, farmed salmon and tilapia. (The bivalve dialogue covers five species while the marine fish dialogue covers seriola, a yellowtail, and cobia.) Each dialogue has a 10- to 12-member steering committee that synthesizes the input of the broader group and makes decisions.

"This is the only aquaculture standard that's out of a multi-stakeholder process. The standards are not this vague language associated with best management practices. These are measurable standards," says José Villalón, managing director for aquaculture for WWF-U.S. "If I was a retailer, I would certainly want to choose [a standard] that's perceived to be the most credible."

Dialogue participants include Sysco, IKEA (which has r estaurants, cafés and Swedish food markets in many of its 36 U.S. stores), Marks & Spencer, U.K. retailer Carrefour's, Royal Ahold, German retailer Metro, Bird's Eye and the Anova Group. WWF's founding partner in the ASC is the Dutch Sustainable Commodity Initiative in Holland. The partners have hired Dr. Philip Smith as a development director and hope to have the council operational by midyear of 2011.

GlobalGAP, formerly known as EurepGap, stands for Global Partnership for Good Agricultural Practices and is aimed at driving 
improvements in agricultural production. It can certify farms to salmon, shrimp, pangasius and 
tilapia standards (its own and soon also the WWF's tilapia standards).


Overseeing the certifiers 

The competition between GAA and WWF's programs seems to be pushing each other to improve. The GAA, for example, has added a standards oversight committee to guide development and review of standards, with significant NGO representation - notably Pete Bridson, aquaculture research manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, also on the steering committee of WWF's shrimp dialogue.

The International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labeling Alliance (ISEAL) sets a code of good practices for credible social and environmental standards and requires compliance to its code as a membership condition. Once the ASC is established, says Villalón, it will pursue ISEAL membership. GAA's Redmond says ISEAL membership is unnecessary since it is already using certification bodies that are compliant with the In ternational Organization for Standardization.

Tilapia is the only standard completed by all three that makes a side-by-side comparison possible, and Seattle-based Sustainable Fisheries Partnership is planning an analysis.

Meanwhile, Costa-Pierce suggests buyers not get too hung up on sifting through the alphabet soup. "If they're certified," he says, "buy." It's certification overall that's driving improvement.

"It's not the blue revolution," says Costa-Pierce, "it's the evolution of the blue revolution. That's what's important."


Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte, Pa. 


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