Fishing for Certification

The Struggle to Bring Organic Standards to the Fishing Industry

With the organic meat and produce sector fattening into a $17 billion cash cow and expanding into retail giants like Wal-Mart, it’s no wonder that the fishing industry feels left out. Aquatic animals were excluded from organics when U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards were set in 2002.

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The National Organics Standard Board (NOSB)—the panel responsible for creating organic guidelines—decided this past March to defer recommendations on the use of fish meal, fish oil, and open net-cages, delaying aquatic certification until a future meeting. Fish producers eager to take ad-vantage of the higher price tags the label typically fetches have been frustrated by the delay.

"This is a lost opportunity," says Anthony Sims, president of Kona Blue Water Farms—a Hawaii-based company that raises Kona Kampachi fish using self-described sustainable techniques. "This decision means that fish farmers will not yet have the prospect of an organic premium as an incentive to improve their farming methods."

The problem facing organic hopefuls and the NOSB has been how to control and standardize what fish come in contact with in the water and in their food supply. It’s especially troubling for wild-caught fish, since fishing companies can’t demonstrate the purity of their catch.

Even the diets of farmed fish are difficult to control. While herbivores such as catfish and tilapia respond well to closed ponds and plant-based organic feed, carnivores like salmon aren’t so easy to manage.

Conventional salmon farms rely on fish meal and oil made from wild-caught seafood for feed ingredients—an inefficient process that some estimate requires three pounds of wild-caught fish to make one pound of farmed. On average, 70 percent of the salmon’s diet comes from seafood sourced from over-fished waters. Some in the industry are lobbying to allow future organic fish farmers to use the scraps from sustainably caught wild fish meant for human consumption as a feedstock. Caps would also limit the percentage of scrap-derived meal and oil used in salmon feed at 12 percent for each.

Critics at California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium have protested using fish meal or oil from non-certified fish, arguing that to feed non-organic food to certified livestock would cheapen existing organic principles. "It’s unclear if the use of open-net pens and the use of fish meal and fish oil are compatible with those principles," says Corey Peet, research analyst for the aquarium. "It’s critical that the aquaculture industry adapt to the organic principles and not the other way around."

Open net-cages are also at issue. Opponents argue that the nets, which trap thousands of fish and hold them stationary along coastlines, would also compromise organic principles, since they cannot control effluents in ocean waters. And net-cages have other environmental consequences.

Dom Repta, spokesperson for the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform, cites British Columbia studies that show net-cage technology allows untreated waste release, transferring of sea lice to wild salmon and the escape of farmed fish—a potential threat to the genetics and territorial claims of native salmon species. Marine predators such as seals and sea lions also become trapped and die in the nets. "Open net-cages just don’t fit under the organic umbrella," says Repta.

Most anti-net lobby groups have pushed for closed-containment units on farms—large tanks that keep fish separate from natural waterways. "They have to develop a model that is both commercially and environmentally viable," says Richard Martin, chair of the National Fisheries Institute’s Organic Seafood Committee. Some experts wonder if organic certification should be the industry’s goal at all. Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) favors performance goals for aquaculture over the prescribed practices of organics. "What we want producers to do is to actually achieve a result on the ground," says Clay. "And we don’t necessarily care how they do it."