At ASC we’ve been working to improve standards in farmed seafood for a decade, so we are always pleased to see people talking about issues around responsible seafood.
This is the topic of a new documentary on Netflix, Seaspiracy. We share the filmmakers’ passion for the oceans and for improving the world’s food systems. But while the documentary raises some vital issues and asks important questions, it glosses over major challenges facing the world including food security for a growing population, and climate change, land use, and water use associated with both animal and plant-based protein production.
Unfortunately, the solution provided by the film – that everyone stops eating seafood – would only substitute one set of environmental and social issues for another, because all food production has impacts and can be damaging if it is done irresponsibly. Soy production – if done irresponsibly – can lead to the destruction of precious rainforests and loss of biodiversity, for example.
Rather than not eating any seafood, or soy for that matter, an essential part of the solution is to look at the performance of individual food producers, and encourage them to improve their own practices and reduce their specific impacts. Verifiable and independently assessed information about what we are buying and eating, enables us to make informed choices that support genuine improvements being made in the way we feed and protect the planet.
ASC certification can only be achieved by farms that have been independently audited by third parties against the strictest standards in the industry. The filmmakers did not approach us for comment or advice, but we can share with you here why responsible aquaculture is so important and how we are tackling the potential impacts it can have.
One of the big issues raised by Seaspiracy is the demand for feed from the aquaculture industry. This is absolutely an important issue, which is why ASC farms must demonstrate they are only sourcing their feed from responsible sources – that means full transparency, and no feed from unsustainable or illegal sources. However, Seaspiracy unfortunately did not cover the wider impacts of feed.
What was not mentioned in the documentary is that the aquaculture industry has made big innovations and reductions in its use of wild caught fish – fishmeal production has followed a steady downward trend since 1994, while up to 35% of fishmeal comes from fish by-products, which were previously wasted, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). That means that the vast majority of global fish production – 88% – is utilized for direct human consumption, and that’s a number that has significantly risen in recent decades.
Rather than solely containing fishmeal or fish oil, feeds are made up of a variety of ingredients from land and sea. But this presents other impacts, because land-based ingredients can also have negative environmental and social consequences. Fortunately, the ASC’s Feed Standard, launching this year, requires that all feed ingredients, land or marine based, used by ASC certified farms are responsibly and transparently sourced.
Seaspiracy also talked about the use of feed produced by illegal fisheries committing human rights abuses. ASC certified farmers must demonstrate they are sourcing their feed responsibly and transparently and the ASC standards include requirements that specifically prohibit the use of fishmeal from Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. IUU fishing is a serious concern that must be eradicated through collaborative working across nations, and greater transparency of the sort required by the ASC standards.
ASC certified shrimp farms cannot destroy any mangroves or be sited in areas of mangrove deforestation. Mangroves play a crucial role; supporting coastal and marine biodiversity, protecting coasts and capture more carbon than tropical rainforests. It is vital that they are protected. While much shrimp farming takes place near areas of mangrove forest, it is not accurate or fair to paint all shrimp farmers as destroying these important habitats. Many responsible shrimp farmers treat their local environment and neighbours with respect – and ASC certified farmers must demonstrate they are doing this.
Shrimp farming is far from the only risk to mangrove forests, which can also be destroyed by other farmers, logging, or coastal development. To prevent this problem, it is important to provide alternatives to communities who may feel they have no economic choice than to destroy mangroves. ASC is working on a project in Ecuador which will do exactly this and will provide communities (not just shrimp farmers) with a financial incentive for protecting their mangroves. We look forward to sharing more information about this exciting project very soon.
Salmon farming mortalities
Unfortunately, some of the statistics used in Seaspiracy, such as mortality figures in salmon farms, are not sourced, making it difficult to verify them. But the health and welfare of farmed fish is one of our top priorities and is covered in a number of ways in ASC standards. ASC certified farms must monitor, investigate, and keep accurate records of any mortalities, implement mortality-reduction programmes and arrange on-site visits from veterinarians at least four times a year, and fish health experts at least once a month.
Farmers must also work hard to prevent these mortalities in the first place, by developing and implementing fish health management plans, monitoring water quality, dissolved oxygen, and other metrics that indicate fish health and welfare. And it makes sense that farmers would want to take this responsibility of care for their animals seriously. The survival and good health of those animals provides farmers with food for their families, for seafood consumers and supports the livelihoods of millions globally.
Impacts on wild salmon
If farming is not done responsibly, it can impact wild populations, which is why ASC certification requires that farms take a number of actions to protect wild species. In areas of wild salmon, farms must keep the number of sea lice below a certain level, and all farms must monitor their fish for sea lice and work to keep their fish healthy with fish health management plans. In areas where more than one farm is operating, any ASC farm must work proactively with its neighbours – even if they are competitors – to ensure the collective impact of their farms on wild populations is limited.
There are also very strict requirements in the ASC standards about water quality, pollution, and the disposal of waste, which ensure that certified farms reduce their impact on the nearby environment.
ASC is completely self-owned and independent. ASC was set up ten years ago and its standards for different farmed species were developed over a period of many years by a multi-stakeholder group of experts, including NGOs, academics, farmers, and retailers. We are a third-party certification scheme, which means we don’t carry out audits ourselves – these are carried out by independent Conformity Assessment Bodies (CABs). What all of this means is that it is not possible to ‘buy’ ASC certification, and farms can only become certified following a long and robust audit process against hundreds of indicators covering environmental, social, and legal responsibility. Every audit involves public consultation, meaning local communities and other stakeholders are invited to have their say. Because we are a fully transparent organisation, we publish all our standards online, along with every audit report for every ASC certified farm. You can find out more about our independence here.
No easy answers
We strongly agree with the UN’s assessment that aquaculture will need to play a vital role in providing not only healthy protein for the world’s rapidly growing population but protein produced with much lower climate impacts than that reared on land. But it must be done responsibly. Just because aquaculture is important to food security, doesn’t mean it should be carried out without care. That’s why our programme allows consumers to choose and reward responsible farmers, encouraging more to follow suit.
The issues raised by Seaspiracy are as complex as they are important. It is always tempting to believe that there are simple or easy solutions to complicated problems. The reality is that removing responsibly produced seafood from the world would take away food and livelihoods from millions of people in developing countries, and necessitate alternative protein production which would have its own impacts. A recent report by the FAO estimates that some 3.3 billion people rely on seafood for at least 20% of their animal protein – and in many countries including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Cambodia fish is providing up to 50% of animal protein intake. At the same time, around 20.5 million people are directly employed by aquaculture alone.
The solutions to these issues require collaboration, transparency, and honesty. That’s why we’re open about our standards and require certified farmers to be open about their performance, and why you can make a difference by choosing ASC certified seafood.