What is the Aquaculture Stewardship Council?

The Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) is an independent, international non-profit organisation that manages a certification and labelling programme for responsible aquaculture. The ASC’s primary role is to manage the global standards for responsible aquaculture, which were developed by the WWF Aquaculture Dialogues. The ASC is recognised by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and, as a member of the ISEAL organisation, ASC’s operations meet the requirements for credible standard setting.

ASC works with aquaculture producers, seafood processors, retail and foodservice companies, scientists, conservation groups and consumers to:

  • Recognise and reward responsible aquaculture through the ASC aquaculture certification programme and seafood label.
  • Promote best environmental and social choice when buying seafood.
  • Contribute to transforming seafood markets towards sustainability.

To retain its independent position, ASC works with a programme for independent assessment and certification by third parties. This means that ASC does not assess fish farms itself. Instead, certificates are issued by an independently accredited certifying agency. This certifier carries out the assessment of fish farms and decides whether they meet the ASC standards.

When was it founded? When was the first farm certified?

The ASC was founded in 2010 by WWF and IDH (The Sustainable Trade Initiative). The first farm was certified in August 2012.

Why is it important to certify aquaculture?

As the world population grows, so too does the demand for fish. Fish is a high protein, low fat, healthy and nutritionally rich food.

But traditional methods of wild capture fishing can’t possibly meet the demand. Fishing resources are finite and the United Nation Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has reported that more than 89% of marine fish stocks are either fully exploited or overfished.

Aquaculture has the capacity to meet global demand while reducing the pressure on wild capture fisheries. Aquaculture is the fastest growing food production system in the world and, according to the FAO, more than half of the fish consumed globally comes from aquaculture.

But the rapid rise in demand for farmed fish presents new problems. When aquaculture is not well managed, it can have a range of adverse impacts, including poor site management, water pollution, disruption of local ecosystems and poor working conditions. The faster the aquaculture industry grows, the greater its potential impact on the environment and local communities.

By promoting better managed fish farming we can meet the growing demand while minimising environmental and social impacts.

What makes the ASC distinct from other certification schemes?

The ASC is the only certification and labelling program for farmed seafood consistent with the International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labelling (ISEAL) Code of Good Practice for Setting Social and Environmental Standards.

The criteria for certification are robust and require best practice performance including record keeping, monitoring and clear parameters for important indicators of environmental and social performance. The ASC assessment procedures are independent, transparent and allow for a high level of stakeholder engagement.

As science changes and we receive new information relating to better management and practices, the ASC Standards may also change. The ASC is committed to conducting regular reviews of each standard to ensure they remain robust and meets or exceeds best industry practices.

Every ASC certificate holder must undergo reassessment at regular intervals to remain in the programme. All ASC certified farms and Chain of Custody (CoC) license holders must keep up with any changes in the standard that are in place at the time of their audit and farms certified under a previous set of requirements must comply with the new indicators at the time of reassessment.  This practice in fully aligned with the intent of the programme which is dedicated to ongoing improvements.

What major impacts of aquaculture does the ASC address?

The ASC Standards cover principles and criteria to minimize environmental and social impacts in the following area of aquaculture:

  • Legal compliance (obeying the law, the legal right to be there)
  • Preservation of the natural environment and biodiversity
  • Preservation of water resources and water quality
  • Preservation of diversity of species and wild populations (e.g., preventing escapes which could pose a threat to wild fish)
  • Responsible use and sourcing of animal feed and other resources
  • Good animal health and husbandry (no unnecessary use of antibiotics and chemicals)
  • Social responsibility (e.g. no child labour, health and safety of workers, freedom of assembly, community relations)

Why does the ASC have an on pack logo?

The ASC logo is important to the efforts of the ASC because consumer choice has a huge impact on our environment.

The ASC is a market-based programme, designed to create incentives and reward responsible farming practices. The logo assures buyers that the fish they purchase has been responsibly sourced, with minimal impacts on society and the environment, and is fully traceable back to a well-managed farm due to CoC certification.

Because ASC labelled products allows the buyer to support farmers who share their values and gives them confidence that their purchase makes a positive contribution to the health of the environment and workers’ rights, the logo provides companies with a competitive advantage and proof of achievement in a market leading programme for the production of responsibly farmed seafood.

Which species are eligible for ASC certification?

The ASC currently covers twelve species groups which were chosen because of their potential impact on the environment and society, their market value and the extent to which they are traded internationally or their potential for such trade.  They are salmon, shrimp, tilapia, pangasius, freshwater trout, oysters, mussels, clams, scallops, abalone, seriola (amberjack) and cobia.

What is Chain of Custody certification?

Chain of Custody (CoC) certification ensures that every distributor, processor, and retailer trading in ASC certified sustainable seafood has effective traceability systems in place. This assures consumers that the ASC labelled seafood they buy has been sourced legally from a certified sustainably responsible source, has been separated from non-certified seafood, and can be traced along the supply chain from farm to the final sale.

In order to maximise efficiencies and reduce costs, and in light of the fact that many companies in the supply chain sell both wild caught and farmed seafood, the ASC shares the MSC Chain of Custody system.

Each company in the supply chain physically handling or selling an ASC certified product must have a valid Chain of Custody certificate.

The Chain of Custody standard consists of five key principles that every company must meet to achieve certification:

  • Purchasing from a certified supplier
  • Certified products are identifiable
  • Certified products are segregated
  • Products are traceable and volumes are recorded
  • The organisation has a management system

Just like farms, businesses that wish to become Chain of Custody certified must be audited by independent certifiers to ensure that all requirements are met.

What is ISEAL and how do organisations become a member?

The ISEAL Alliance is the global membership organisation for sustainability standards. ISEAL is a non-governmental organisation whose mission is to strengthen sustainability standards systems for the benefit of people and the environment. The ASC is the only aquaculture certification scheme that has been recognised as a full member of ISEAL.

The four goals of ISEAL are to:

  • Improve the impacts of sustainability standards
  • Define credibility for these standards
  • Improve their effectiveness, and
  • Increase their uptake.

All ISEAL members must adhere to the ISEAL Credibility Principles, meet the criteria set out in ISEAL’s Codes of Good Practice and commit to continuous improvement. Full members are those who comply with the Standard-Setting, Impacts, and Assurance Codes.

ASC joined ISEAL as an associate member in January 2013 and became a full member in April 2015.  Other full members of ISEAL include Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade International, Forest Stewardship Council, UTZ and the Roundtable for Certified Sustainable Palm Oil. Learn more about ISEAL at their website.

Can farms become ASC certified everywhere in the world?

Yes, ASC is truly a global programme and currently has certified farms on all continents except Antarctica.

Would the ASC allow certification of a farm in an area with other farms already on site?

Yes, farms situated in areas where other farms operate can be certified.

Would the ASC allow certification of a farm in an area with challenging environmental characteristics?

Farms are not allowed to be located in protected areas as defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) or High Conservation Value Areas (HCVAs). Prior to seeking certification, a farm must have an assessment of their potential impact on biodiversity and nearby ecosystems.

How does ASC protect the environment around the farms?

In the case of the ASC Salmon Standard, producers are required to not only perform to best practices on their farms, they must also participate in an Area-Based Management (ABM) scheme— regardless of whether it is required by law in their region— to protect the environment beyond the farm being certified. Some scientific experts believe that ABMs reduce risks related to pathogens and parasites to wild and farmed fish and can lead to reduced use of therapeutants.

The ultimate goal of an ABM is to improve health and biosecurity management on the farm and minimise potential negative impacts on wild populations. have specific requirements, including a time period where an area is completely fallow in order to break disease and parasite cycles. Within the relevant defined area, ABM’s require that at least 80 percent of farmed production (by weight) must participate in the area-based management scheme, even if not all farms are seeking certification under this requirement. When required by the standard, all farms owned by the company applying for certification in the area must participate in the ABM, though not all must be applying for certification.

The ABM scheme used by a farm must ensure that there is:

  • Clear documentation of the farms/companies included in the ABM and mechanisms for communication.
  • Development and documentation of shared disease management goals and objectives for the ABM. Goals shall include components related to understanding and minimizing risk of on-farm disease to wild fish.
  • Information and data-sharing among farms of any data needed to ensure coordination, including plans for stocking and fallowing; on-farm disease and parasite monitoring results including sea lice numbers; suspicion of an unidentifiable transmissible agent, information on therapeutic treatments; and data on resistance including information related to treatments not being as effective as expected.

Furthermore, the ASC requires the sampling of dissolved oxygen on the farm site, which provides a useful overall proxy for a water body’s ability to support healthy biodiversity. Farms in compliance with the standard cannot contribute to low dissolved oxygen conditions. If low oxygen levels are measured at a farm, samples must be taken from a reference site in the same water body to ensure that the farm is not causing adverse effects on the ecosystem.

Does ASC have special requirements for feed?

ASC certified fish must be fed with feed from responsible sources. Fish meal and fish oil, which is an important ingredient in the diet of farmed fish, must come from certified sustainably managed fisheries. All soy used in the feed must be responsible farmed and verified by a programme such as the Roundtable on Responsible Soy.

In addition to the sustainability requirements for the feed itself, ASC sets requirements on how much feed can be used. This is expressed in the so-called FCR-ratio, which specifies how kg’s feed are needed to produce 1 kg of fish.

The ASC is also currently creating a Feed Standard that will define requirements for both responsible factory practices, and requirements that define parameters for responsible ingredients for the three main component groups used in aqua feed: marine ingredients, terrestrial plant ingredients and terrestrial animal ingredients.

The marine ingredient requirements for ASC Feed will require that feed mills, over time, source from more sustainable sources and address sustainability issues for terrestrial derived ingredients beyond those for soy. A second draft is currently in review, and the ASC aims to finalise this project before the end of 2017.

What about Astaxanthin in Salmon feed? What does it do and is it safe for human consumption?

The diet of farmed salmon is composed to provide the same proportion of nutrients that fish would receive in the wild. Carotenoids, including Astaxanthin, are present in the diet of wild salmon (krill and other crustaceans) and provides health benefits t fish including a supply of anti-oxidants. Carotenoids are also the reason wild salmon is pink.

Since farmed salmon has no access to natural sources of Astaxanthin, the substance is added to the fish diet. It is a minor additive (50-100 ppm) in mainly salmonid feed and has been approved by relevant regulatory authorities as safe for both fish and human consumption.

Does the ASC certify farms?

No, the ASC does not assess farms or issue certificates. ASC operates according to a third-party certification model. Third party certification ensures that an external, independent conformity assessment body (CAB) performs all farm audits and determines if they comply with the criteria in the ASC Standards. The CAB also issues the certificate once a farm has been deemed to meet the ASC Standard.

In turn, the CABs are accredited by the independent organisation Accreditation Service International (ASI). Third-party assessment is recognised around the world as the highest level of assessment, and ASI accreditation demonstrates to both consumers and stakeholders that ASC’s certification programme meets the highest levels of professionalism in the industry.

How do farms get certified?

The ASC certification process reflects the organisation’s values of openness, inclusiveness and transparency. Independent conformity assessment bodies (CAB) audit the farms and assess if they comply with the ASC Standard.

The ASC certification process includes the following steps:

  • The farm agrees a contract with an independent certifier.
  • The certifier works with the farm to prepare for the audit.
  • The audit is publicly announced on the ASC website at least 30 days in advance to allow stakeholders to provide relevant input.
  • The audit will assess both technical and social compliance, which require different skill sets. The audit team typically uses two auditors to meet the skill requirements.
  • The audit assesses the farm’s administration (logbooks, invoices, delivery receipts, etc.).
  • The auditor verifies the operation is well run in practice through visual assessments and interviews with management and staff.

Following the assessment, the audit team prepares a draft report, which may raise any major or minor non-conformities that the farm needs to improve upon. Both parties then agree on a time-bound improvement plan for each issue.

When all major non-conformities have been addressed and improvement plans for any minor issues have been agreed upon, the certifier will decide if the farm complies with the ASC Standard. The draft report will be available for public consultation on the ASC website for a minimum of 10 days, allowing stakeholders to give their feedback.

The certifier will process all findings from the audit and responses from the consultation into a final audit report. This report will state whether the farm is certified or not yet certified.

The ASC farm certificate is issued by an independent certification assessment body and valid for three years. Farms are subject to annual onsite surveillance audits to ensure that the certificate holder’s daily activities are conforming to the ASC Standard.

What is a conformity assessment body?

A conformity assessment body (CAB) assesses farms to determine if they meet the ASC requirements specified in the Standards and Certification requirements. CABs that want to assess farms against the ASC Standards have to demonstrate that it can operate as a professional certification body in accordance with ASC’s Farm Certification and Accreditation Requirements (CAR) and ISO 17065.

Can any auditor perform onsite audits for farms seeking to become ASC certified?

Auditors must meet certain performance levels and must conduct farm assessments as set out in the ASC Farm Certification and Accreditation Requirements (CAR). Auditors are also required to participate in ASC’s Standard specific training; including a mandatory exam to test their understanding which they must pass.

Certification companies that employ them are independent of the ASC. The certification companies, or conformity assessment bodies (CABs), must demonstrate to another independent company, Accreditation Services International (ASI), that they have the skills to undertake assessments by conducting a successful pilot audit. ASI is referred to as an ‘accreditation body’ and they ‘accredit’ a CAB when they have demonstrated understanding of the ASC Farm Certification and Accreditation Requirements. After accreditation, CABs will be monitored by ASI to ensure they continue to operate in line with the ASC’s requirements.

How transparent is the ASC?

Transparency is one of the founding principles of the ASC. Not only is each standard developed with public consultation, each audit is announced on the ASC website in advance and all stakeholders—including the community, the general public, NGO’s and many others— are invited to submit information and data online at multiple points in the certification process. The CAB will also hold site visits and solicit participants for public meetings near the audit sites and other locations as appropriate. The final report of the certifier can be viewed for ten days prior to the close of the process and anyone can raise an objection—which the CAB must consider when making a final determination— if so desired.

The ASC is also highly transparent as an organisation. Reports of all the board meetings and of various project groups are available at asc-aqua.org.

What is a minor non-conformity? Can farms become ASC certified if they have a minor non-conformity?

Minor non-conformities are smaller issues found during an assessment that must be addressed by the farm, but which do not hinder the farm from becoming certified.  Time-bound improvement plans for any minor non-conformity must be agreed upon before the CAB can determine if the farm complies with the ASC Standard.

What is a major non-conformity? Can a farm become ASC certified is they have a major non-conformity?

Major non-conformities are larger issues found during an assessment that must be corrected within a certain timeframe before a farm can become certified. The farm must correct all major non-conformities within 3 months after their assessment in order to gain its certification.

What is a variance Request?

A variance request (VR) is a mechanism to allow for the change of a requirement to the standard or the CAR. Each ASC standards and the CAR is set with the best knowledge available. However, VR’s allow for the inclusion of learnings over time—before a standard is formally reviewed—and also take into account that not all realities in the field can be anticipated when creating a standard.

When appropriate, an auditor may submit a variance request for approval to the ASC. If approved, this will allow the farm to meet the intent of the standard to improve environmental performance in a way that takes multiple factors that may not have been accounted for in the standard into account.

How many non-conformities can a farm have and become certified?

The number of non-conformities does not necessarily determine whether a farm can be certified. However, if a CAB thinks a farm has too many non-conformities, it can find that the farm is not compliant with the standard and decide against certification.

In order to become certified a farm must correct all major non-conformities found during the audit. Farms are also obliged to close all minor non-conformities within one year from their initial assessment.

Are all audits scheduled? Are there ever unannounced audits?

Not all audits are planned. Conformity assessment bodies (CAB) can also conduct unannounced surveillance audits without notice. Unannounced audits are intended to provide a more accurate picture of a client’s day-to-day conformity with the ASC Standard, as the client will not have any time to prepare specifically for the audit. The ASC’s accreditation body (ASI GmbH) may implement unannounced audit to the client/farm. Purpose of ASI’s unannounced audit is to monitor performance of the CAB but if abnormalities are found on the farm, ASI will share them with the CAB for certification decision. For unannounced CoC audits, entry must be granted to the auditor within 30 minutes of their arrival. Entry cannot be refused on the basis of a responsible person not being available, or another audit being conducted on the same day.

What happens if a farm is found to be in violation of the standard after they are certified?

A conformity assessment body (CAB) may suspend or withdraw a certificate for a contractual or administrative reason.

Suspension of certificate entails the temporary removal by the CAB of all or part of a certificate holder’s scope of certification pending corrective action by the certificate holder. Withdrawal of certificate is the irrevocable removal by the CAB of all or part of a certificate holder’s certification as a result of noncompliance with certification requirements or contractual commitments.

Certified farms that are found to not comply with the ASC Standard will be suspended with immediate effect. The CAB informs the ASC of any suspensions or withdrawals of certificates within five days of the decision and the information on the ASC website is updated accordingly. The date of the suspension or withdrawal is the date the decision was taken by the CAB.

If a certificate is suspended or withdrawn, the CAB must immediately instruct the certificate holder to not to sell any product harvested from the date of suspension or withdrawal as ASC certified or with the ASC logo. The CAB also instructs the certificate holder to inform existing or potential customers in writing of the suspension or withdrawal within four calendar days of the suspension or withdrawal date.

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