Sustainability rising for farmed salmon, says GSI report

Published on
May 16, 2017

Farming salmon is more sustainable than growing land animals in several key ways, according to the Global Salmon Initiative’s (GSI) latest sustainability report.

And some of the biggest future improvements in sustainability will likely result from more efficient feed, say salmon industry experts.

The third annual GSI sustainability report, released in late April, contains four years of data and tracks 14 indicators determined by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC). It was the first to include data verified by independent auditors.

The 12 GSI member companies account for roughly half of global farmed salmon production. Nearly a quarter of all GSI farms have been certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, an increase of 60 percent from 2015. GSI has a goal of having all farms certified by ASC by 2020.

Compared to other sources of animal protein, salmon did well on sustainability indicators such as fresh water use and carbon emissions.

Salmon also have a low – and falling – feed conversion ratio, meaning that farmers efficiently retain the protein and energy in feed while converting it to food for people. That ratio is now 1.3 to 1. By contrast, the ratio for chicken is 1.9 to 1, while for pork it’s 2.8 to 1, and for beef it’s 7.5 to 1.

Still, less total weight of salmon is farmed than other major protein sources, with 3.1 million metric tons produced annually, compared to 96.1 million tons of chicken, 113 million tons of pig products, 64 million tons of cattle products and 8.6 million tons of sheep products.

Industry-wide change demands cooperation, according to GSI, which is encouraging salmon farmers to become certified by the ASC.

“We want to lead by example and demonstrate to other companies, and other sectors, that improving sustainability is a pre-competitive issue,” Per Grieg, GSI co-chair and chairman of the board at Grieg Seafood ASA, said in a statement. “Through greater transparency and greater cooperation, it is possible to achieve change at scale, which is good for the environment, and good for business.”

The ASC Salmon Standards – which resulted from a roundtable initiated by the World Wildlife Fund – address the primary issues related to salmon aquaculture: disease, sea lice, benthic impacts, escapes, feed, nutrient pollution, chemical inputs and social impacts.

To achieve certification, farms have to prepare for and undergo an audit by a third party, and they have to meet 521 different compliance points. 

For instance, farms have to measure the water for nitrogen, phosphorous and oxygen, among other parameters, and stay within set limits. They also have to develop fish health management plans and have low levels of parasites, especially sea lice. Medicines can only be used after a disease is diagnosed.

ASC-certified farms must support biodiversity by limiting fish escapes and being located away from high conservation-value areas. Child labor is also prohibited, and workers must earn a decent wage and have regulated hours.

“Only producers that meet stringent requirements can become certified, and the ASC logo is proof of achievement,” Michiel Fransen, head of standards and science for ASC, told SeafoodSource. “In a marketplace where an increasing number of consumers want to trust that their food has been raised according to the best environmental and social practices, and can be traced back to a well-managed farm, ASC certification is an advantage.”

To make salmon farming more sustainable, feed mills will need to source marine ingredients from more environmentally friendly sources, Fransen said. The industry also needs to track the sustainability of plant-based feed ingredients, which account for 75 to 80 percent of global aqua feed production. So far, the sustainability of these plants has been largely overlooked, with the exception of soy.

To help address that, ASC is working on a feed standard to be released at the end of 2017. The new standard will improve upon existing standards by requiring traceability of all feed ingredients, not just the wild fish and soy that are currently tracked.

The focus is already shifting for feed companies, which are zeroing in more and more on the composition of micro-nutrients rather than ingredients, with the result that diets are becoming more efficient, Fransen said.

New sources of Omega-3 fatty acids, especially, will help make salmon feed more sustainable, according to Lise Bergan, the corporate affairs director at Cermaq, one of the world’s largest salmon farming companies. One way feed companies are developing those sources is by better using the leftover parts of processed fish and developing plant-based alternatives.

By replacing marine ingredients with agricultural products, salmon feed has already become much more sustainable. But convincing customers of that sustainability will require more emotionally resonant storytelling using, for instance, virtual reality videos.

“Seeing is believing, and we need to be better at presenting the fantastic sustainable food production we do in remote places in Norway, Chile and Canada,” Bergan said.

Want seafood news sent to your inbox?