NGO report criticizes ASC certification standards

SeaChoice – a collaboration of the David Suzuki Foundation, Ecology Action Center, and Living Oceans Society – released a report on 18 October criticizing the Aquaculture Stewardship Council’s adherence to its Salmon Standard. 

The NGO’s report claims that only a small portion of the salmon farms certified by the ASC meet its stipulated criteria. Variances on the standard were “changing its original intent and enabling farms that would not comply to be certified," SeaChoice said.

“Eco-certification by a reputable organization like the ASC should indicate farms with excellent practices that meet strict criteria, without exceptions,” Living Oceans Society and SeaChoice representative and report author Kelly Roebuck said. “Instead we found that only about 20 percent of salmon farms around the world actually follow the criteria as written. People aren’t getting what they think they’re getting with the label.” 

SeaChoice said that the ASC is allowing farms that don’t meet its Salmon Standard to remain certified. 

“ASC’s Salmon Standard requires 100 percent compliance for successful certification,” SeaChoice wrote. “But the report found that in practice, neither the standard nor the auditors’ guidance document is being followed as written.”

The report claims that variances and interpretations are “operating as de facto amendments” on the ASC’s Salmon Standard, leading to farms with certifications that aren’t complying with the standard. 

“Canadian farms with sea lice loads up to 149 times higher than the standard and farms in Norway and Chile using sea lice chemical treatments up to 330 percent higher than the standard have received or maintained ASC certification,” SeaChoice said.

Those violations of ASC’s Salmon Standard create a cumulative effect, reducing the effectiveness of ASC’s certification, SeaChoice said.

“Amendments to the standard are overriding the multi-stakeholder agreements on which the standard’s social licence is based. As a result, many of the intentions of the original standard have been eroded,” David Suzuki Foundation and SeaChoice representative John Werring said.

ASC has issued a lengthy response refuting the claims made in the SeaChoice report.

“We welcome SeaChoice’s constructive criticisms – and take due note of them – despite some showing a lack of understanding of how the ASC and other certification schemes work,” ASC wrote. “As those familiar with certification schemes well know, a standard is not a stand-alone document. Farms must meet the certification requirements set in the ASC Certification and Accreditation Requirements (CAR) that together with the standard determine if a farm can be certified.”

According to the ASC’s statement, SeaChoice’s interpretation of the standard that a farm must be 100 percent compliant at all times isn’t true. 

"SeaChoice keeps asserting that we require '100 percent compliance' to the standard, but this is not and has never been the case," Contessa Kellogg-Winters of ASC told SeafoodSource. "I do want to mention it precisely because it is important that we make it clear what the standard is and what it is not, and as members of the SAD [Salmon Aquaculture Dialogues], SeaChoice should be well aware that this assertion is simply not true." 

ASC also pointed out that the criticism is only possible thanks to the organization’s level of transparency. 

“The scrutiny arising from the unrivaled level of transparency embedded in the ASC standards, and in the Salmon Standard in particular, has over the years had significant industry-wide beneficial effects including – but not limited to – making salmon farmers and ASC more accountable,” the ASC said in a statement. “By providing such accountability and transparency, and enabling in-depth scrutiny, the ASC provides insights than can increase the public’s confidence in the fish they eat and drive greater improvements over time."

In addition, the SeaChoice report was written based on outdated information that has since either changed, or is in the process of being updated, Kellogg-Winters said.

"I will take the opportunity to point out that sections of this report are based on outdated information. We have been in the process of updating our standards and process — a formal stream of work seen in both our Operational Reviews and the creation of our Programme Assurance Team, which started to make updates early last year," Kellogg-Winters told SeafoodSource. "Just since that time we’ve introduced improvements based on our internal reviews and SeaChoice acknowledges this within their report before refraining from mentioning it in their press release."

Transparency aside, SeaChoice’s report calls for the ASC to maintain the certification’s original strict guidelines and avoid allowing the standards to slip. 

“Eco-certifications are at risk of losing credibility and consumer trust. They only work when standards get followed and lead to genuine changes on the water,” Living Oceans Society Executive Director Karen Wristen said. “They can’t just reward business as usual.”

Photo courtesy of ASC


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