Q&A: Aquaculture Stewardship Council CEO

Published on
March 18, 2013
On a recent trip to Vietnam to look at how the Aquaculture Stewardship Council is working to help transform the pangasius industry, SeafoodSource contributing editor Nicki Holmyard caught up with CEO Chris Ninnes, to find out how the organization is progressing.

Formed in 2012 by the World Wildlife Fund and The Sustainable Trade Initiative, the ASC have standards developed for tilapia, pangasius, bivalves, abalone, trout and salmon and work is progressing on standards for shrimp, seriola and cobia.

The next step is to train auditors and put certification and chain of custody paper trails in place, and this has already been done for tilapia and pangasius.  A test run has been carried out with the salmon standards and certification is due to start within the next month.  There is a lot of interest in this one, with salmon farms ready to sign up in Norway, Chile, Scotland, Canada and New Zealand, according to Ninnes.

Holmyard: Will other standards be added? 

Ninnes: Yes! We have received many requests for new standards, but before we add species to the list, we need to consolidate the existing standards.  Working with lots of standards inevitably means there is inefficiency, so we need to look at common elements and harmonize them without compromising performance.  This will also simplify the training and audit process, but it will take time to achieve.  The resulting generic standard will form the foundation on which other species-specific elements can be added.

Are retailers and food service companies buying into the label? 

Ninnes:  We are very excited with the level of interest and uptake because it has been much faster than expected. ASC certified products have only been on the market for six months but already there are more than 300 available in fourteen countries.  The MSC took four years to reach the same point, but we have been able to learn from their experience and to benefit from the work they have done in creating market interest and awareness.  

What are you doing to guard against unauthorized use of your label?  

Ninnes: Importantly we are collaborating with the MSC in this area, sharing their chain of custody standard and contracting them as our agents to provide packaging approvals. This provides an efficient and well tested service to those already engaged with their program, and allows us to jointly develop tools that provide deterrents to unauthorized use such as product trace-backs. We will also work with our certified partners to develop DNA identification tools and with the MSC to develop better online verification tools to provide greater understanding of certified product flows.

What are your ambitions for ASC? 

Ninnes: Clearly we have to deliver all the ASC standards to market and establish the ASC in markets that are currently demanding products.  However, to achieve our Vision we need to be relevant for many more farmers, in many more markets.  I want to make ASC better known in emerging markets, and work to improve the overall standard of aquaculture.  For example, there is much to be done and great opportunities to work in countries such as Brazil and China, where fish and shellfish farming and consumption is growing fast.

We want to explore this potential and have programs in place in Brazil to explore market opportunities, and a large EU funded initiative to help tilapia producers engage with our program.  

We are also developing a “Farms in Transition” program that will encourage farmers to seek ASC certification and facilitate market access for those undertaking meaningful and verifiable improvements.

Last but not least, I want to add value to the producers by linking production more with the market and am currently talking to retailers about introducing “certified seafood” promotional weeks to raise consumer awareness about the benefits of choosing sustainable seafood. These would be run in conjunction with other organizations such as WWF and MSC and we are currently working on promotional material to help us put the message across. We aim to launch this initiative in the Netherlands later in the year and hope that it will be a template for other markets to adopt.

Do you think it would be more beneficial to consumers to have a single harmonized standard for sustainable seafood rather than the diversity of labels currently on offer? 

Ninnes: I agree that there is some overlap between standards, and an exciting ambition for me is to work more closely with other certification schemes such as GAA, Global Gap, Fair Trade and MSC.   We speak to each other, but have never yet worked together at this level before, and I believe it would be beneficial to our own organisations as well as producers and consumers if we looked at the potential for collaboration.  

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