Op-ed: Are aquaculture sustainability certifications broken?

Norwegian marine ecologist Per-Erik Schulze and Norwegian Society for the Conservation of Nature Deputy Chair Randi Storhaug
Norwegian marine ecologist Per-Erik Schulze and Norwegian Society for the Conservation of Nature Deputy Chair Randi Storhaug | Photos courtesy of Per-Erik Schulze and Randy Storhaug
6 Min

Per-Erik Schulze is a Norwegian marine ecologist, and Randi Storhaug is the deputy chair of the Norwegian Society for the Conservation of Nature. Their joint op-ed serves as a supplement to a recent open letter sent to the Norwegian government by seven Norwegian NGOs regarding the status of aquaculture in the country, as well as conversations held with Chilean NGOs that highlight similar troubles they believe are present in the South American nation’s aquaculture industry.

Norway and Chile together account for about 75 percent of the world’s farmed salmon production.

This year, the world’s largest aquaculture certification groups – Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) – are set to revise their standards. Yet both schemes fail at meeting their self-described missions of ensuring “safe, responsible, and ethical farm-raised seafood.”

In both Norway and Chile, certified farms operate outside their allowed permits, destroy the environment, falsify records, and even operate within marine protected areas. So, if the certification standards of farmed salmon are broken, who is truly looking out for consumers and the environment?

Norwegian seafood is generally marketed as sustainable, well-managed, and sourced from a healthy, clean ocean, and at the time of writing, Norway has 348 ASC-certified fish farms. 

However, despite the large number, the Norwegian salmon-farming industry is in trouble. In January 2024, seven national environmental NGOs, representing hundreds of local groups and highlighting the growing concern of communities along the country’s coast, petitioned the Norwegian government for a rapid phase-out of open net-pen salmon farming. They also called for reducing the total number of farmed fish in the sea and introducing more protected zones.

Overcrowded pens in large intensive fish farms are breeding grounds for diseases and fish lice outbreaks. Salmon farms in Norway face urgent problems due to poor fish health and mass mortality, with many locations losing upward of 25 percent of their total production. Other impacts include massive pollution causing harmful algal blooms and dead zones in the fjords, as well as interbreeding between escaped farmed salmon and wild salmon, which reduces the survival rate of offspring in wild populations.

Hardly any salmon farm or company in Norway complies with regulations, too, inspection records show. The falsification of monitoring data and hiding problems from the authorities is not uncommon. Norwegian police eco-crime units have introduced a new term, “aquaculture crime,” which they list as “high-risk” after seeing repeat violations. The aquaculture industry has environmental impact assessments that are too weak at many of their sites, resulting in pollution of cold-water coral reefs and other habitat destruction. 

As a grave example of unsustainable ASC certification, the company Salmar received the ASC stamp of approval for a salmon farm located right in the middle of the Froan Nature Reserve, a national protected area that was designated to safeguard important seabird and seal colonies.

ASC is considered by these Norwegian NGOs as largely ineffective. Even worse, a “sustainability certification” of today’s salmon farms, companies, and/or methods can be interpreted as greenwashing. In 2016, the Norwegian Society for the Conservation of Nature first criticized ASC for the lax criteria it used to evaluate the serious impacts of chemical use and fish farm escapees on companies vying for ASC certification.

Similarly, in Chile, cracks in their sustainable certification of farmed salmon really began to show when Nova Austral was found to be operating over its permit allowance, even inside the so-called “protected” waters of Alberto de Agostini National Park. It was also cited by the Chilean government for falsifying mortality records

Once the shining example of sustainable salmon production in Chile and having achieved ASC certification, Nova Austral then obtained the distinction of receiving the largest fine ever levied by Chile’s Superintendency of the Environment (SMA) for environmental rule breaches. Today, Nova Austral continues to operate in what are intended to be protected national parks. Unfortunately, Nova Austral is not an anomaly in Chile.

In 2023, the SMA imposed 35 sanctions on several companies for non-compliance. Many of these farms were, at the same time, certified under the BAP scheme. For example, in 2022, the company Granja Marina Tornagaleones had four violations levied against it, including one grave infraction for seabed pollution. Yet this same company received multiple salmon and trout farm certifications from BAP

Canadian seafood company Cooke Aquaculture has also been cited by the SMA for overproduction at several Chilean BAP-certified sites, with a Chilean newspaper reporting that a Cooke site located in Laguna San Rafael National Park had produced 6,000 percent over its permitted volume.

Compounding the issue, there has been explosive growth in the Chilean and Norwegian farm-raised salmon industry over the last 30 years. The proven track record of environmentally destructive practices by many Chilean aquaculture farms is disastrous for the Patagonian ecosystem, just as it is in the fjords of Norway.

Industrial waste pollutes the coasts and alters landscapes. Pesticides and antibiotics used to help control disease and pests like sea lice leech into the environment and are harmful to many native species. Between 2004 and 2021, 8.5 million salmon escaped from production centers in Chile. 

In Norway, the country’s fishery directorate, which is the authority managing escapees of farmed fish, got 172 calls in 2023 alone from the general public reporting about farmed fish escapes. 

“No one knows how many farmed fish are escaping every year because the precision on bookkeeping of fish in each pen is so low,” the directorate concluded.

Salmon species are not native to the Southern Hemisphere and escapees from farmed pens have high environmental consequences on native fish due to the status of salmon as a new top predator. While in the Northern Hemisphere, there are wild salmon in rivers, but farmed salmon still mightily outnumbers wild salmon in Norway, making diseases and pollution of the wild gene pool a high risk.

Global retailers often rely on third-party certifications such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), BAP, and ASC to provide assurances that the seafood they are sourcing is sustainably and ethically produced. These certifications are supposed to be the backbone of many retailers’ sustainable policies.

It seems these certifications are now acting as a shield that protects certain companies and enables them to destroy the environment. More recently, aquaculture certifications have weakened the concept of protected areas, turning them into paper parks by allowing industrial production that is directly incompatible with their actual purpose.

There might be an economic incentive for the “sustainable aquaculture” certifications to continue to keep low standards. Standard-setting bodies make money from either logo licensing or certification activities. This gives them an economic incentive to certify as many fisheries and facilities as possible. In 2022, the Global Seafood Alliance, the parent company of BAP, made USD 19 million (EUR 17.8 million), with nearly 95 percent of that coming from certification fees. ASC earned USD 16.2 million (EUR 15.2 million) that same year, with 86 percent of that total coming from logo-licensing fees.

While the Chilean and Norwegian coasts are in big trouble because of aquaculture, most of the same companies have been awarded a sustainable certification on many sites. The companies are allowed to move fish between locations, and there is little or no traceability on the real sustainability of each salmon fillet.

It is clear that “sustainable” certifications are not an effective tool to keep Chilean or Norwegian salmon-farming operators from overproducing and causing environmental damage nor can they even be kept to legally operating under their permitted conditions. 

Global retailers need to step out from behind the certification shield and make protecting pristine ecosystems a priority by refusing to buy salmon grown in protected areas or in production areas that have problems with pollution, fish diseases, and farmed fish escapees.

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