Op-ed: Five myths about certified sustainable aquaculture

Adam Daddino is an aquaculture program manager at accredited certification assessment provider SCS Global Services.

Adam Daddino is an aquaculture program manager at accredited certification assessment provider SCS Global Services.

Declining fisheries and pressures on marine ecosystems around the world have increasingly driven the demand for alternative, more-sustainable sources of seafood. In response, aquaculture has taken off. 

Over the past few decades, aquaculture practices have markedly improved. Today’s most-reputable aquaculture operations are specifically designed to curb overfishing, protect wild fish populations and the surrounding natural environment, and produce nutritious foods. Likewise, organizations throughout the seafood supply chain are going to great lengths to ensure that seafood can be traced back to certified sources and is properly handled to deliver healthy, nutritious products to consumers.

Reputable standards developed through recognized multi-stakeholder processes and backed up by third-party certification are essential to help food manufacturers, retailers, and consumers identify these sustainable sources. Producers and supply chain companies that meet strict certification standards such as the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) are helping aquaculture farmers sell their products into developed markets with discerning buyers. However, lack of awareness and misconceptions about aquaculture in the general public, often exacerbated by well-meaning but underinformed influencers, are still hampering broader uptake.

This has to change, because, simply put, the world needs more aquaculture, along with plant-based protein alternatives. Already, 17 percent of the protein people eat comes from the sea, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the latest research suggests that global demand is expected to rise by 80 percent by 2050, with China, India, and the U.S. being the top-consuming countries. With the global population expected to approach 10 billion people by that year, the oceans cannot naturally keep up with the world’s insatiable appetite for seafood. Both to prevent worldwide shortages and help to protect the planet’s delicate ecosystems, aquaculture must succeed and flourish. And that requires overcoming false perceptions that stop seafood-lovers from choosing certified farmed fish and seafood products.

Here are five of the most common myths that undermine the value of the certified aquaculture products in the marketplace.

Myth #1: Aquaculture certifications only serve to validate the toxic, eco-distressing practices of corporate fish farms.

The plain truth is that not all fish-farming operations are environmentally friendly. Even the best-intentioned aquaculture operations didn’t get it right in the beginning. Fish populations were too dense to allow for natural behavior, producers used too many chemicals (or the wrong kinds), and the farms generated too much pollution. But just like many other industries, aquaculture has evolved dramatically over the years and farms are far more sustainably managed than they were 20 years ago. Continued scientific study, coupled with rising consumer awareness of sustainability issues, has led producers to implement new best practices that yield a more desirable product, protect the environment, and still support a profitable business.

Standards like the ASC and Global Seafood Alliance’s (GSA) Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) standard exist to ensure that these best practices are followed for the benefit of everyone – producers, wholesalers, retailers, and consumers. The certifications set compliant producers apart from those who don’t meet the same rigorous standards, and this puts pressure on all fish-farming operations to improve or risk losing out to competitors.  

Myth #2: Aquaculture certifications are just another form of “greenwashing,” industry insiders patting themselves on the back for unsubstantiated or insignificant achievements in sustainability.

Both ASC and GSA are completely independent, not-for-profit organizations. Attaining these certifications requires that fish farmers do a lot more than pay lip-service to their environmental commitments. In fact, the standards upheld by the ASC were developed over the course of a decade through extensive scientific research and collaboration involving not just those in the industry, but local communities, environmental NGOs, government agencies, biologists, environmental scientists, and other academics. To get ASC- or BAP-certified, organizations must be audited on an annual basis by a qualified and impartial third-party assessor independently accredited through an exhaustive process. These auditors often require improvements to be made before certification can be issued. In other words, achieving certification isn’t easy, and it can’t be bought.

Myth #3: Aquaculture certifications don’t do anything good for the marine ecosystem.

Think again. In addition to ensuring farmed fish are safe and nutritious to eat, protecting marine habitats and preserving wildlife are key reasons aquaculture certifications were created. The extensive list of standards the auditors uphold include regulations to safeguard vulnerable natural areas, preserve water quality, reduce the use of pesticides and chemicals, control the spread of illness and parasites, and use more-sustainable feed. These stringent requirements for fish-farmers make aquaculture a viable, sustainable food source for the world, and therefore help to reduce destructive overfishing of wild populations.

Myth #4: Aquaculture certifications are only for big companies in developed countries.

It’s true that large organizations, which have bigger budgets and staffs, are usually the first to adopt new standards and pursue certifications. However, certification bodies like the ASC and GSA recognize the need to help smaller companies and even the smallest family farms achieve certification so they can meet buyer demands and remain competitive in the marketplace. Different levels of certification, such as single-site certificates for small farms, or group certificates that may cover entire farming communities, make the standards realistically achievable on a modest budget.

Myth #5: Certification auditors are the “fish police” sent to crack down on non-compliant farmers.

This myth circulates among fish-farmers themselves. Certification auditors, hired by the company’s management, often receive a chilly reception when they show up to the worksite to inspect their operations. Some employees mistakenly believe auditors will report them for any infractions or make their jobs harder. But the fact is, auditors and fish-farmers desire the same outcome. Auditors work with employees to better understand their day-to-day procedures and implement changes to help them work more efficiently and responsibly to achieve the certification they seek. Implementing these best practices doesn’t just protect the environment, it protects the job security of aquaculture workers.

Our best bet

For all the disheartening news about climate change, declining wildlife populations, and escalating world hunger, aquaculture is a bright spot of hope. While there is certainly still room for improvement, aquaculture offers an opportunity to reverse course in many ways, reinvigorating our oceans while supplying the world with a sustainable source of healthy and desirable protein. But to make a significant positive impact, aquaculture must be done the right way, with the utmost regard for food safety, environmental protection, and social responsibility. That’s what makes the certification process so essential, and labels like ASC’s “Farmed Responsibly” so meaningful.

Photo courtesy of Adam Daddino/SCS Global Services


Want seafood news sent to your inbox?

You may unsubscribe from our mailing list at any time. Diversified Communications | 121 Free Street, Portland, ME 04101 | +1 207-842-5500