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Editor’s note: The following is a letter to the editor submitted by Neil Sims, co-founder, president and co-CEO of Kampachi Farms in Hawaii. It’s in response to the SeafoodSource story “New report ranks farmed finfish eco-labels,” which ran on Wednesday.

John Volpe, SERG, and Pew are to be applauded for their noble ambition in conducting an assessment of sustainability certification systems. Lord knows, we all could use some objective evaluation of the multitude of standards and seals and certificates. And if we in industry feel that way, then pity the poor retailer, or consumer!

However, the interpretation by Volpe and colleagues of the results of this study, and their pronouncements to the press on their findings, are deeply disappointing. Instead of objective evaluation of the data, the significance of these findings seems to have been skewed by preconceptions and prejudices. 

The study finds that there is very little difference between conventional marine fish farming practices and the sustainability certification standards, and implies that this is a bad thing. This lack of “value added” to the labels, the study authors say, means that certified farms are not greatly outperforming “status quo” operations. This reflects, they conclude, a “lack of strong, measurable standards.”

But this interpretation appears to be based on a presumption that conventional marine fish farming is itself “bad.” If you live in British Columbia, that might be the conventional wisdom, but that is exactly why we need certification standards and academic studies — to rise above the fixed mindset, to ask honest questions, and to answer them objectively. 

Might we ask how else these results could be interpreted if we disavow such a loaded presumption? Let us instead make no a priori value judgment on fish farming. Rather, let us presume that the sustainability standards reviewed by the report were, in the main, earnest attempts by well-meaning stakeholders to define what they collectively considered to be acceptable environmental impacts. Many of these standards were developed through multi-stakeholder processes; eight of them are organic standards. So it is hard to think that Naturland or Soil Association standards were somehow collectively watered down under the weight of some pernicious pressure from corporate aquaculture. 

So then, if conventional marine fish farms are actually very close to our collective aspirational ideal of a sustainable food system, perhaps that is rather a very good thing. The close similarities between “status quo” and “certified sustainable” might, in fact, reflect that marine fish farms have relatively low impacts, compared with our expectations for an animal protein production system. This was indeed the finding of the “Blue Frontiers” report by Conservation International and WorldFish Center earlier this year, which concluded that (I’m paraphrasing loosely here) of all the animal protein production systems on the planet, aquaculture was hands down the lowest impact.

I think that we should be celebrating such findings, instead of bemoaning them. And then we might want to consider how to responsibly scale this industry, instead of beating aquaculture incessantly with whatever stick comes to hand. 

This alternative interpretation doesn’t allow marine fish farmers to sit back smugly on their laurels; there is a fundamental principle to most of these standards that asserts that farms should always strive for continuous improvement, and the standards themselves should scribe an arc of increasing rigor. Any farmer worth his salt, or his fish, should always be striving to better his operation, and that usually means a lower fishprint; lower environmental impacts are better for the farm and the fish.

So perhaps the environmental NGOs need to reassess their position. Perhaps responsible aquaculture is truly the most sustainable, environmentally sound option, of all those out there. Perhaps continuing to deride or de-market aquaculture — and limiting the growth of the least-impact option — is actually making our planet a poorer place. Maybe anti-aquaculture activists are actually anti-environmentalists. 

Professor Volpe and colleagues have only web-published this study, to allow for regular, ongoing review and updates. That is most helpful. We look forward to seeing revisions of these findings that reflect some more scientific objectivity in the interpretation of the data. And we look forward to using such tools to help us all get better at what we do — grow fish, sell them, consume them or measure their impacts. 

Sincerely,

Neil Anthony Sims

Kampachi Farms

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