Revised ASC Salmon Standard spotlights science, replaces outdated methodologies

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Published on
February 11, 2020
Photo by Duncan Leadbitter

It was with an eye toward data and a determination to remedy inconsistencies incurred over time that the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) first set out to review its Salmon Standard back in 2015.

The standard setting organization dedicated years to the multi-stakeholder, science-based review process that followed, extensively analyzing and recalibrating the mechanisms upon which so many responsible aquaculture operations around the world rely. What resulted is a revision it says offers tangible, relevant benefits to farms of all sizes, specifications, and locations.

“Our goal was to not just capture and define best practices, but to engage farms to improve their performance over time in a way that brings meaningful and real benefits,” Michiel Fransen, ASC’s Head of Standards and Sciences, said of the revised standard, which was announced in July 2019. The six-month effective period has now elapsed and farms hoping to achieve ASC certification must meet the updated requirements.

“After looking at the data, we knew we could make improvements and the standard had to be revised,” Fransen said.

Among the key amendments to the standard, Fransen noted, was an update to the Parasiticide Treatment Index (PTI), referring to the veterinary treatment and approaches used to address salmon parasites, particularly sea lice. Incepted before 2012 as an indicator of the potential impact of treatment, the PTI came into being “with little information related to the actual performance of salmon farms regarding their use of parasiticide and was essentially untested,” according to ASC. As such, ASC endeavored to derive a new concept with more comprehensive implications:  the Weighted Number of Medicinal Treatments (WNMT) methodology.

During its review of the PTI, ASC discovered that the existing indicator possessed no clear variations between the different salmon production regions in the earth’s two hemispheres and, thusly, did not reflect contrasts in ecosystems, Fransen explained. That’s why, within the revised Salmon Standard, a region-specific Entry Level (EL) WNMT exists – this new concept “allows only the better performing salmon farms in any given region to meet this Indicator” and incentivizes “the development and implementation of non-medicinal measures (e.g. biological and mechanical control),” ASC said.

The global level of the WNMT has been set at 3 allowed treatments, except for cases where a double bath has been applied, when the level would be marked at 4 treatments.  Regional entry levels exist for each region – based on a statistical analysis of country-specific distribution of treatment frequency – under the updated methodology. The regional EL is set at the 50th percentile of this distribution curve, ASC said, and farms must meet or be below the regional EL for compliance. If the farm is above the global level, it must make a 25 percent reduction over a two-year period, until it has met the global level, ASC confirmed.

This new Salmon Standard process, which also requires that farms post their integrated pest management (IPM) plans publicly and have them verified by authorized veterinarians, ultimately offers a benchmark that creates accountability and an expectation of progress over time, according to Fransen.

“It really is an improved methodology. It’s one that’s fully based in science and we think that it will have additional benefits in that we’ll collect even more data from the farms that are engaged in the program to potentially set further improvements at the next level of revision,” he said.

What’s more, by making IPM plans readily accessible, there is more compelling farms to seek out innovative treatment alternatives, Fransen said. 

“With this revision, we are requiring that farms develop and publish on their website an integrated pest management plan, which basically details how they’re going to achieve the reduction targets we set. And, in doing so, there’s an ambition to use non-chemical treatments,” he explained.

Although non-chemical treatments are an ambition ASC supports, the organization is aware that, currently, “without the use of medicines, only a small proportion of farmers could farm salmon responsibly in terms of managing fish welfare and related fish health challenges.” That’s why ASC has arranged its performance requirements to allow some existing farms to achieve it, while still making room for further change that can be incentivized within the sector.

“If the bar is set too high, these incentives can prove insufficient to drive change, and ultimately counterproductive as limited improvements are realized,” ASC said.

“As with all food production industries, chemicals are necessary in some settings in aquaculture, and it is important that they are used safely and responsibly, and that producers are incentivized to reduce their use as much as possible. These are the aims of this change to the ASC Salmon Standard, which has been set based on thorough statistical analysis, research, and stakeholder consultation,” ASC added.  

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