Demand for certified-responsible fish growing
Pangasius’ rise to prominence — the catfish farmed in Vietnam and China was the 10th most popular seafood species among U.S. consumers in 2009 — has been nothing short of remarkable. Despite negative press and punitive antidumping tariffs, part of extensive efforts on behalf of the U.S. catfish industry to keep the product out of the country, pangasius has managed to thrive.
In addition to the murky waters of international trade politics, the imported fish is a focal point for another intriguing debate centering on the use of eco-labels on farmed seafood. If pangasius (swai, tra) were to be certified against stringent environmental, social and safety standards, would such autonomous assurances be enough to sway federal policy or public opinion about the integrity of the product? Would pangasius producers and importers then have sufficient proof for critics that their fish is safe and its production hasn't caused ecological harm?
Efforts to improve the practices of Vietnamese pangasius producers, as well as farmers of other seafood species around the world, have been a mission for two leading international organizations dedicated to setting performance standards for sustainability. In August, both the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA) and the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Aquaculture Dialogues released standards for pangasius production. (WWF says the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, or ASC, will assume oversight ?of the Aquaculture Dialogues when it becomes fully operational sometime in 2011.)
Both GAA and ASC representatives say their programs set acceptable tolerance limits for environmental impacts while conserving biodiversity and controlling chemical use. The two highly competitive groups are jockeying for position in the global seafood marketplace, hoping to convince the world's largest seafood buyers to adopt their methodology and stock their shelves with farmed seafood products brandishing their particular seals of approval. Some of the nation's largest food companies — trendsetters like Walmart and Target, for example — already require some form of certification for the farmed seafood they source, so the demand for certified-sustainable farmed seafood is big and growing, particularly in the retail sector.
The hope among the environmental community is that the most intensively farmed seafood products craved by consumers in developed nations — shrimp, catfish, tilapia and salmon — are cultured carefully and in line with aquaculture standards shaped by an international, multi-stakeholder collaboration of producers, academics and environmental scientists. What buyers want is validation of said responsible practices in a form that can be easily conveyed in the marketplace.
That could be easier said than done. The evolution of multiple sets of standards is pushing sustainability forward but it also has raised many questions: Are two — or more — sets of standards good for the seafood industry, with the notion that competition begets innovation and diligence? Are the standards really that different? Or is it simply overkill and unnecessarily confusing for an industry that's already astonishingly complex?
One thing is clear: Eco-labeling seafood has become nearly as competitive as the seafood industry itself.
To read the rest of the feature on farmed seafood certification, click here. Written by SeaFood Business Associate Editor James Wright, the story appeared in the November issue of SeaFood Business magazine.