Aquaculture Operations Seek Organic Certification

fish farmOf the several proposed or available labels for seafood products, none are as divisive as organic.

As the aquaculture, or fish farming, industry continues its rapid expansion, some U.S. environmental groups have called on the government to set organic standards for aquaculture. Their hopes are that the booming organic market, with its higher premium, would motivate fish farms to clean up their acts. Others remain unconvinced that an organic fish market could address aquaculture's environmental concerns without ruining the credibility of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic label.

The specifics of how marine fish species can be certified as organic are still uncertain. Whatever the outcome, the fates of global fisheries and the organic industry as a whole may be at stake.

A Fish Feed Dilemma  

Aquaculture was once considered the safe alternative to a seafood industry that has driven global fish species toward extinction. Now fish farms are labeled by some environmentalists as a more destructive option. Tremendous concentrations of fish waste and antibiotics pollute coastal waters, and fish escapees threaten the ecological balance of wild fish communities. Some aquaculture operations, such as Hawaii's Kona Blue Water Farms, are implementing more expensive measures they say help to better protect the environment.

The United States passed Japan last year as the second largest seafood importer, behind the European Union, so a new organic demand may have global implications. But the USDA National Organic Standards Board is struggling over the first step in the organic fish process: what would these fish eat? A panel of aquaculture experts suggested that fish caught in the wild should be permitted to eat fishmeal in "organic" aquacultures, and over time more fishmeal would have to be farm-raised.

A coalition of 44 environmental organizations protested the proposal, which they said would violate organic rules that require organic animals to be fed organic food. Plus, they said it may threaten the survival of smaller fish, which are disappearing as they are caught to feed carnivorous farmed fish, such as salmon or trout. Commercial fishing dedicated to fishmeal or fish oil now amounts to 32 million tons per year, or 37 percent of all fishing, compared to 7.7 percent in 1948, according to a University of British Columbia study.

In response, the standards board's livestock committee passed a recommendation that prohibits the use of fishmeal and fish oil from wild aquatic animals. Instead, aquacultures could purchase the feed from providers who are certified as organic by a foreign certification scheme, even if the label is less stringent than USDA standards. USDA would adopt its own fishmeal or fish oil standards as the industry grows. "If we don't allow organic aquaculture to start, there won't be a competitor to conventional aquaculture," said Joseph Smillie, a board member who is an organic certifier with Quality Assurance International in Vermont.

The standards board deferred its decision in a meeting last week, but the proposal has already split the environmental community.

Risky Innovation

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Ocean Conservancy, and Oceana said that while 90 percent of edible marine fish may disappear by 2048, the need to create a competitive, sustainable aquaculture industry is urgent. These groups reason that, in the absence of government regulations, the aquaculture industry needs economic incentive to change its practices, and organic is the best motivation, they say.

"Organic products have a price premium, people are willing, producers are willing, to try new things," said Rebecca Goldburg, an EDF senior scientist. "It's not going to transform a whole sector, but it's a good way to pioneer techniques. You can't do that unless if you create incentive for people to pursue them."

Michael Hirshfield, chief scientist at Oceana, said that a stringent organic standard for aquaculture could influence fish farms to alter damaging practices such as catching fish for fishmeal. "This potentially provides not just what we see as appropriate for meriting the organic label, but also what we would see as what aquaculture, period, should be," Hirshfield said.

As organic becomes more mainstream, larger organic operations-dairy, for example-have been accused of lowering their standards to meet the demands of a growing market.

Groups including Food and Water Watch, the Center for Food Safety, and Greenpeace oppose an organic aquaculture standard due to fears that it would further tarnish consumer faith in the organic label, discouraging farmers from switching to organic. "We don't want to sacrifice the credibility of the organic label for all food, just to satisfy issues of aquaculture," said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch.

All environmentalists likely oppose a standard that undermines the organic label, which is a reason why the USDA standards board concedes that they lack a consensus-building solution. Environmental groups are also highly concerned. "The last thing the world needs is a fight between groups that are interested in ocean conservation and ocean sustainability attacking the word organic," Hirshfield said.

The strength of an organic label is not the only complaint. Individuals from the David Suzuki Foundation, Sierra Club, and WWF criticize an organic standard because they doubt it will create sufficient environmental improvements.

For instance, sea lice, a parasite found in salmon aquacultures, can decimate wild salmon populations when the farmed fish escape-but they are treatable with antibiotics. "The only option to some of these farms is to use chemicals-a treatment which would not be allowed on organic standards, for a very good reason," said Jay Ritchlin, director of marine and freshwater conservation for the David Suzuki Foundation. The organic standards board also has not resolved how to best treat animal waste from fish farms.

More Comprehensive Labeling

Instead of focusing on organic, which may become only a niche market, greater attention should be paid to an aquaculture label that addresses pollution, invasive species, fishmeal, and socioeconomic impacts, said Jose Villalon, director of WWF's aquaculture program. Villalon is currently heading up the "aquaculture dialogues," a collaboration of 1,400 representatives from nongovernmental organizations and industry who are shaping standards for marine and freshwater species that he said will be more robust than the 17 labels presently available. "We recognize the value of organic certification," Villalon said, "but if you are going to look at the environmental impact, you really need an environmental eco-label."

If sustainability labels can be agreed upon for aquaculture, EDF's Goldburg and Oceana's Hirschfield both said they welcomed the labels in addition to organic. While the challenge of creating significant standards is tremendous, the result may be worth the risk.

"The feasibility argument is always raised anytime there's a stretch that's implied by a new standard or a new regulation," Hirschfield said. "It's only when the standards are there and they're real and they mean something that the creative energies of industry are generated to meet them."

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

Stay Tuned! Worldwatch will be releasing a comprehensive new report, Farming Fish for the Future, in September 2008, written by senior researcher and food expert Brian Halweil.