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The SSI report examines sustainability standards for aquaculture

Aquaculture is expected to play an important role in the diet of a growing world population. At least that is what many experts as well as the FAO, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, think. It is also undisputed that such a contribution to the protein supply of the population can only be welcome if it is carried out in a sustainable fashion. Against this background, different standards for a sustainable aquaculture sector with appropriate certification systems have arisen in the past ten years with the intention of ensuring sustainability. But what criteria are incorporated in the concept of sustainable aquaculture? How should they be weighted? And what role do they play in the various sustainability labels that are currently available on the market for seafood products?
Blue economy requires certified fisheries and aquaculture
The IISD (International Institute for Sustainable Development) is a Canadian research institute, which was founded in 1990 as a non-profit organization. Over 150 hired experts from over 30 countries are engaged in all manner of issues regarding sustainable development. The IISD has also commented on most international conferences on the environment and development for many years, and has a good reputation as an independent authority on these issues. Four experts of the IISD recently released a report titled “State of Sustainability Initiatives review (SSI): Standards and the Blue Economy“. The core issue at hand is whether and how the seventy percent of the Earth's surface covered by the world seas can be made use of in the context of a "blue economy", and which role sustainable fishery and sustainable aquaculture should take.
Certified sustainable fish from wild catch and aquaculture with rapid growth figures
Even if most companies in the world involved in fishing and aquaculture are not yet certified and the demand for certified fish from wild catch or aquaculture on the part of consumers is still rather low in developing countries, the SSI report nevertheless expects a total amount of 23 million tons of certified sustainable fish from wild catch and aquaculture worth over USD 11.5 billion in the year 2015. Between 2003 and 2015 the growth in certified fishery and aquaculture amounted to about 35%, which is more than 10 times higher than overall growth. Certified fish from wild catch and aquaculture is thus gradually gaining market shares. It is therefore to be welcomed that the independent experts of the SSI report have evaluated the leading standards for fisheries and aquaculture with regards to sustainability.
Environmental and social factors define the different sustainability standards for aquaculture
The SSI report puts together its own parameters, which are then used to compare the major current certification systems for aquaculture. These include standards like GLOBALG.A.P., the eco standard Naturland, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) und Friend of the Sea (FOS), which are well-known in central Europe, as well as other less well-known standards such as the important American standard Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA/BAP), the eco organization IFOAM Organics International und ChinaGAP, which is used in China.
For the environment the experts of the SSI report used indicators to evaluate the influence of aquaculture on the ecosystems they are based in: How do ecosystems react to unused fish feed and fish excrement? How is the production of soya for fish feed noticeable elsewhere? How does aquaculture influence habitats such as mangrove forests? But also questions regarding biodiversity play a role, for example, the potential influence of escaped aquaculture fish on wild populations, or the potential danger to seabirds and marine mammals through aquaculture facilities. What is also important is the impact fishing has on wild stocks, which are then wholly or partially processed as fish meal or fish oil in the feed for aquaculture fish. And finally, the use of genetically modified organisms (GMO) in feed is evaluated, and whether this can alter the DNA of bred animals and plants.
The social indicators then include specifications on animal welfare. The standards must have answers to the question of how attention is paid to animal welfare during the farming, transport and slaughter. Labor rights, occupational safety and social security constitute the main part of the social area. The experts of the SSI report have posted specifications on the important questions of whether people employed in the aquaculture sector work under “humane conditions”, i.e. whether they are granted the core working norms of the ILO (International Labor Organization), such as the right of organization in a trade union or the prohibition of child labor, etc. These working conditions are basically expanded somewhat and complemented by issues such as: do the workers and their families have access to educational institutions, sanitary facilities, medical care, etc.
GLOBALG.A.P. Standard best meets SSI specifications for environmental factors
With a total coverage of 87%, the GLOBALG.A.P. Standard is the standard that best meets the five areas for environmental factors in aquaculture certification defined by the SSI. This is followed by the two organic standards Naturland and IFOAM Organics International with 77%. Particularly in the fields of synthetic inputs, waste and water management and ecosystem, the above certification systems achieved values of over 70% in almost all areas, while the GLOBALG.A.P. Standard even achieved a 100% rating in all three fields. If there are any major “weaknesses” at all, the SSI report believes these can be found in the area of greenhouse gas and energy, where none of the standards actually achieved a value of above 50%, which may, however, be due to the partially very difficult and cost-intensive creation of a carbon footprint along the value chain.
It remains to be said that almost all the standards in the SSI report are highly or very highly suited to illustrate and ensure sustainable environmental practices in the aquaculture sector. And together with the social factors of the aquaculture industry, these environmental factors play the most important role for consumers.
Organic aquaculture standards best meet the social requirements of the SSI
When it comes to the social indicators for sustainability, the two organic standards Naturland and IFOAM came out on top. Here Naturland reached a top value of 90% and reached values of 100% for the consumer-relevant indicators of animal welfare and social security. GLOBALG.A.P. reached the maximum value in comparison to the ASC [13%] for animal welfare, while labor rights and social protection were less strongly weighted than the organic standards.
No two standards are the same. They can differ greatly in the width and depth of the indicators. The GLOBALG.A.P. Standard primarily addresses good agricultural practices as well as "good agriculture in water". The standard requirements are designed to enable a large number of small farmers from Asia, Africa and South America to initiate sustainable certified aquaculture. Standard requirements that are too high would lead to a significant selection process for producers, since they do not have the ability to meet the requirements.
Consumers have a choice
Maybe not every aquaculture standard is quite as perfect yet as the experts who wrote the SSI report would like. On the other hand, almost all of these standards were developed with the inclusion of practitioners from around the world, whose aim it was to develop sustainability standards for aquaculture. The GLOBALG.A.P. and IFOAM Organics International standards stand apart, as even small producers in less-developed regions of the world can meet the requirements. Because, what use is the most all-encompassing sustainability standard if it can ultimately only be achieved by very few producers, and seemingly insurmountable hurdles will already discourage producers at the beginning of their transformation process in areas of the world where the demand for sustainable aquaculture is currently the greatest? This is where it might make more sense to adapt or increase the requirements of the certification standards gradually over the years so that aquaculture can also make a contribution to the “blue economy”.
However, all of this will only succeed if consumers, when buying seafood products, increasingly ensure they purchase sustainable aquaculture products featuring the consumer labels GGN, Naturland, BIO, ASC and FOS, and thus reward producers and fishers who advocate sustainable practices.