Aquaculture North America

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Seal of approval


June 25, 2015
By KT Pirquet

It’s early spring 2015.  A full page of the IKEA home furnishings catalog declares, “Our delicious salmon grows in the cool, clear waters of Norway.  By the end of August 2015, it will only come from fish farms that have been certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC).” IKEA wants, as the ad says, “to put sustainability at the heart of our business.”

Large seafood buyers like IKEA’s in-house restaurants, Kroger’s or Walmart can exert a powerful market pull through the cultured seafood supply chain.  No doubt IKEA’s customers will appreciate knowing their lunch was produced without harming the planet, and that IKEA is doing Good Things as a corporate citizen. It’s good for business, and not just theirs.

Sustainability certification for farmed seafood is just the latest in a complex and still expanding universe of assurance schemes that standardize, audit and certify just about every kind of agricultural product sold on earth.  In the seafood world, the most recent developments – after food safety, organic production and labour relations – have clustered around issues of environmental stewardship and sustainability.  This new wrinkle has unleashed an explosion of multi-layered public and private schemes, eco-labels and standards, all jostling for influence, air time and cash in the sustainability rush, and keeping an eye on each other is only now beginning to emerge from its tempestuous and gangly teens.

Third-party, arm’s length

Since the milestone year of 2010, aquaculture now accounts for over half of the seafood protein consumed worldwide, and remains the fastest growing sector of the global agriculture industry. In the northern hemisphere, government regulation defines and enforces high standards of food safety, social responsibility and environmental stewardship. In many developing countries of the global south, however, where the bulk of seafood production is done by small growers for domestic consumption, or by larger firms aspiring to increase their export business, governments are still coming to grips with the kinds of regulation and enforcement needed in an industry that now feeds billions and operates more globally. Into this perceived gap a somewhat chaotic muster of players has been undergoing a curiously organic development process, hoping to gain some purchase on both environmental stewardship and market advantage. 

The immediate demand for all this seafood certification seems to be a response by North American and European markets to campaigns by environmental groups (ENGOs), institutions such as public aquariums, industry alliances and university-sponsored institutes. These initiatives have threatened the brands of many big firms with negative exposure or exclusion from “good choices” lists if they didn’t comply with the criteria established by these non-governmental agencies.  [K.T. Pirquet takes a more detailed look at these influences in the Sept-Oct issue – ANA Editor]

They have shaken down over the last decade to a few major schemes that currently account for most of the sustainability-certified aquaculture product in North America:  the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), Global Good Agriculture Practice (GlobalGAP) and the Global Aquaculture Alliance Best Aquaculture Practice (GAA BAP).  These schemes require third-party verification and auditing services, or certification bodies (CBs or CABs), which are, in turn, audited by accreditation providers. 

Major players  

The dominant scheme in Europe is Friend of the Sea (FOS), a non-profit NGO founded by Dr. Paolo Bray of the Earth Island Institute, and based in Milan, Italy.  FOS certifies both farmed and wild-caught products, while GlobalGAP, GAA BAP and ASC focus on aquaculture.  FOS also claims to be “the main sustainability certification scheme in the world, having assessed over 10 million MT of wild catch and half a million MT of farmed products.” 

Global GAP operates a comprehensive program addressing all kinds of agricultural products and growers, including aquaculture.  It began in 1997 as Eurepgap and attempted to harmonize confusing standards and procedures of food production into a coherent, independent system that would certify and monitor Good Agriculture  by developing Europe-wide criteria for food safety, sustainable production methods, worker and animal welfare, responsible use of water, compounded feeds and plant propagation.  The program certifies only production facilities and has no eco-label for retail packaging.  It went international, becoming GlobalGAP in 2007.  With a presence in 100 countries, GlobalGAP claims to be the world’s leading farm assurance program.

 The Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), founded in 2010 by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH), is an independent, not-for-profit, global certification scheme that “aims to be the world’s leading certification and labeling program for responsibly farmed seafood.” ASC operates with a mandate to manage the standards for global aquaculture that were developed through eight WWF international Aquaculture Dialogues. The ASC system entails three parts:  the Aquaculture Farm Standards; independent third-party audits by conformity assessment bodies (CABs) that are in turn accredited by Accreditation Services International GMBH (ASI) in Bonn, Germany; and the Marine Stewardship Council Chain of Custody system certification, which is an add-on.  Only farms certified by an accredited CAB can sell products into a recognized Chain of Custody and are eligible to carry the ASC logo.  The logo ensures traceability from production to point of sale, and is used by all links in the chain.

GAA BAP was born out of the aquaculture industry itself in 2004.   Worldwide, it now certifies some 700+ farms, processing and repacking plants, hatcheries, nurseries and feed mills for Best Practices and sustainability.  The certification confers a logo, or eco-label, and has set standards for environmental protection, social justice, food safety and traceability that adhere to the “SMART” criteria for well-designed standards:  specific, measureable, realistic and time-related.

All of these certification schemes claim to base their standards on good science and elaborate, multi-stage, transparent stakeholder consultations.  They all employ at least two levels of committees made up of representative stakeholders from ENGOs to producers, retailers to scientists.  Standards are reviewed and renewed regularly, in light of new science and other developments. 

Virtually all schemes are currently supported by a constellation of private, third-party certification bodies acting primarily as auditors.  They verify at arm’s length, through inspections, tests, measurement and documentation, that specific standards are being met.  According to Md Saidul Islam, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (Confronting the Blue Revolution: Industrial Aquaculture and Sustainability, 2014, p 98-101), several dozen CBs currently service about 36 certification schemes, 8 international agreements, and 9 other schemes with a sustainability focus.  A few CBs have emerged as players on a global scale, with offices in many countries.

Overall, less than 3% of the world’s aquaculture production has been certified “environmentally sustainable” to date, with the bulk of the certification for shrimp and salmon that are traded internationally. Of more than 1.3 million metric tonnes currently certified, according to Islam, only three major schemes (Friend of the Sea, Global Good Agricultural Practice (GlobalGAP) and Global Aquaculture Alliance’s Best Aquaculture Practice (GAA BAP) account for more than 10,000 tonnes each. Most certified product is sold in the developed countries of the global north.  The times, however, they are a-changing.

Early signs of maturity

Earlier this year, GlobalGAP announced a partnership with Friend of the Sea that offers an add-on module to its aquaculture certifications, giving businesses access to the FOS eco-label if they are GlobalGAP-certified. 

ASC and GAA BAP are also parties to the harmonization agreement.  According to ASC, a farm seeking multiple certifications, can select any of the three programs (ASC, GlobalGAP or GAA BAP) as the primary standard, and then opt for desired add-ons, including FOS.  Combined audit checklists minimize duplication by merging audit points corresponding to one standard, and then using add-on clauses for the other standards. 

This harmonization effort could begin to rationalize and streamline the plethora of standards, eco-labels and lists that have proliferated during the expansion phase of the seafood sustainability movement.  It may make certification somewhat easier to negotiate, simplify things right on down the supply chain, and may even modify the costs. 

Another cost of doing business

A typical yearly fee schedule for a GlobalGAP-certified production facility would begin with license fees for a single farm: $37.50.  A company with multiple farms would pay $195 for the group, with an added $1.50 per individual farm.  Registration fees have 7 levels, based on farm area or tonnage of production.  These range from $15/year to around $3000/year for bigger operations.  Other fees address broodstock ($150), chain of custody ($337.50/year/company) and livestock transport ($150/year/company).  The bulk of additional fees, says GlobalGAP’s Vice-President of North America Operations, Jonathan Needham, are paid to the third-party CBs that perform the annual audits.  These can amount to a few thousand dollars a year for a small producer, to several tens of thousands for companies with multiple farms, hatcheries, processing plants and/or distribution facilities.

            As another cost of doing business, sustainability certification continues to evolve into an increasingly irresistible force for improving overall acceptance of commercial aquaculture, and for maintaining a brand’s presence in the booming seafood markets of Europe, Japan and North America. Whether it will mature to fulfill its higher purpose of keeping the planet a healthier place for all life forms remains to be seen.  Stay tuned.

— K.T. Pirquet


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