Aquaculture North America

Who is setting industry certification standards?

August 28, 2015
By KT Pirquet

The “swing to green” in the seafood business is well underway with non-producers like ENGOs, public aquariums, universities and zoos contributing to sustainability programs and eco-certification schemes. How has their influence helped to shape and define standards for aquaculture production?  Does influence equal control?

Public aquariums appear to have been first out of the gate, with the flagship Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) leading the seafood sustainability charge since 1984. As an extension of its overall mission of marine conservation and education, MBA’s Seafood Watch program focused on the pointy end of the supply chain: the consumer. Supported by the mighty David and Lucille Packard Foundation, the MBA and has developed Seafood Watch into an influential agent of change, with research capabilities, a seafood assessment and “recommendation” program, printed and online seafood choice guides, a smart phone app and a presence in the policy and standard-setting processes of many other organizations. Seafood Watch has become a model for initiatives by others. And there are lots of others.

In western Canada, The Vancouver Aquarium just celebrated the 10th anniversary of its OceanWise program by hosting a spring seafood symposium.  Although the focus was mostly on fisheries rather than aquaculture, the overall topic of environmental sustainability, both the “big picture” and specific projects of the Vancouver Aquarium departments, prevailed.

Further south, the San Francisco Aquarium of the Bay has helped to found and lead a Bay Area Sustainable Seafood Alliance “to educate the public about sustainable seafood and the impact of personal choice.” The Alliance partners, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the California Academy of Sciences, the San Francisco Zoo and the Marine Mammal Center, promote the sustainable seafood movement in the Bay area.  Their website lists some 60 Bay area Seafood Watch-listed restaurants. In 2013 they ran a “Seafoodie Passport” scheme to reward consumers for patronizing listed restaurants.


The Audubon Nature Institute (ANI) operates a number of public zoos and other facilities, including the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans. In 2012, ANI initiated the Gulf Union for Lasting Fisheries (G.U.L.F.), which operates a Restaurant Partnership Program, including a 10-member Chef’s Council, that provides businesses with support for better purchasing decisions, staff training, listings on the G.U.L.F. website, a Seafood App, promotions vial social media and e-newsletters, and special event collaborations.

The National Aquarium in Baltimore, MD—the first public aquarium in the USA—runs Sustainable Dining Events (“Fresh Thoughts”) under its Conservation and Research banner, and promotes Ocean Friendly purchasing. In Boston, MA, the New England Aquarium’s program, Ocean Friendly seafood choices, features recommended options, buying tips, an assessment standard in two phases (quick and detailed), guidelines for producers and buyers (Ocean Friendly Production Guidance), and a recommended list of compliant sources that adhere to the guidelines, as verified by internal and independent assessments.

Education, outreach and information

Many other public and private aquariums are doing their own research and multiplying their clout through extensive collaborations and partnerships. But aquariums are not the only fish in this pond. Educational institutions and their offshoots, such as Stony Brook University’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanographic Sciences, were early adopters in the sustainability revolution. Based on Long Island in NY State, the University’s Safina Centre, founded by Dr. Carl Safina in 2003, was among the first to promote consumer choice as an effective force in planet stewardship with his “Audubon Guide to Seafood” in the 100th year of Audubon magazine, 1998. Currently, the Safina Centre focusses on fished seafood, but according to its founders, the Centre developed “the first authoritative and transparent seafood analysis to determine the environmental cost of eating fished and farmed seafood.”

Environmental NGOs

North American ENGOs such as the David Suzuki Foundation and the Sierra Club, while sluggish in adjusting their early negative attitudes about aquaculture, have added their weight to the push for sustainable seafood and have begun to include some aquaculture products in their recommendations. In 2006, the Suzuki Foundation, based in BC, and its ENGO partners created SeaChoices, “Canada’s most comprehensive sustainable seafood program,” according the official website. SeaChoices works in concert with the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch program to provide information resources for consumers, business supports, and some tools to assist making choices the Foundation deems “best.” The David Suzuki Foundation participates as a stakeholder on several committees involved in establishing, reviewing or revising seafood certification standards.

In 2006, another influential ENGO, the World Wildlife Fund—which founded the GlobalG.A.P. sustainability certification scheme–initiated a process they called the “Aquaculture Dialogues” as a way of bringing over 2,000 ENGO, scientific and commercial stakeholders together to identify impacts of seafood culture, to define measurable, performance-based standards, and to encourage the industry to use its expertise and innovation to meet expectations. The Foundation sponsored 8 international Dialogues, each addressing a particular species or group of species. Although there has been some pointed criticism of the Dialogues regarding inclusiveness and politics, particularly around shrimp culture in developing countries, they have brought discussion of standards to a wider constituency and the results have gained some traction for GlobalG.A.P. in the certification business.

In North America these and many other non-industry contributors have significantly reshaped seafood market demand, particularly among mid-supply chain entities, who see real advantages in adding environmental sustainability to their branding profiles. Some have been slow to embrace aquaculture as a realistic and legitimate alternative to unsustainable fisheries. However, many are now participating as stakeholders in discussions around science-based standards for aquaculture certification schemes, and even promoting certified cultured seafood in their consumer-directed programs.

Negative “attitudes” have benefited from a more rigorous, science-based approach, and most can see the inevitability of our need for seafood protein sources that do not incapacitate the ecologies of 85% of the planet’s surface via the “tragedy of the commons.”

While they do not individually or even collectively set the standards for aquaculture production or seafood certification, these non-industry contributors have influence and the ear of the customer, and therefore a place at the table. That should be incentive enough for aquaculture producers in the seafood game to wade in and make sure they get the environmental sustainability piece right.

— K.T. Pirquet

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