By Michiel Fransen, ASC’s Standards Coordinator and Secretary of the Responsible Feed Project
When we try to define what responsible aquaculture means, most people usually only think of farm level impacts but there’s more to it before ASC certified products reach the end consumer. It’s no secret that most of the farmed seafood species need feed in order to complete their growth cycle. This makes feed one of the most essential components of fish farming and also a major contributor to the overall environmental impact of aquaculture.
If we take a look at the annual operating expenses that a farmer pays, we find that around 40 to 60 per cent are for feed. This factor is a key driver of innovation in feed composition and in the increased efficiency of its use.
The ingredients puzzle
Innovation in feed composition requires careful analysis to ensure that the required nutrients, which can come from many different ingredients, are delivered when the fish needs them; how much of any nutrient differs according to the species. Several examples of ingredients are soya, palm oil, fishmeal, fish oil, corn, rice, and wheat. Unfortunately, their production process can have negative environmental and social impacts that need to be minimised.
ASC feed standard
To reduce the impacts associated with feed the ASC aims to create a standard that sets out requirements for the aquaculture feed industry to operate on a more environmentally and socially responsible basis. We aim to have the feed standard ready for the end of 2015.
In developing this standard ingredients, such as soy, palm oil, other vegetable and animal ingredients and micro-nutrients are all being reviewed to consider how their impacts can be minimised.
Two other aquaculture certification platforms, Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA) and GLOBALG.A.P., are also actively involved in developing this standard, along with feed manufacturers, retailers, farmers, the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP), the International Fishmeal and Fish Oil Organisation (IFFO), and other commodity standard setters including the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the Roundtable for Responsible Soy (RTRS) and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Oxfam Novib, a social development NGO is also represented.
The feed standard will be applicable beyond the ASC as well as for all ASC certified species. This means that we will cover feed requirements for shrimp, salmon, tilapia, pangasius, sea bass, sea bream and perhaps, in the future, a vast majority of species.
What is essential is that we ensure integrity and a common voice for the industry to respond to the sustainability and social responsibility question concerning feed.
Understanding the feed-related issues
The fish in:fish out ration, the amount of feed fish it takes to grow a kilogram of farmed fish, and the Feed Conversion Ratio (FCR), an overall measure of feed efficiency, are both used in the ASC standards. Limits are set for both to promote efficient use of feed within the sector as well as other considerations to minimise the environmental impact of feed pellets not eaten by the farmed fish. The limit for each species is set out in the specific farm standards. For most species the FCR is between 1 and 2 (so, between 1 and 2 kg of feed are needed to produce 1 kg of fish), but there are also species which go above 2, and species that perform below a FCR of 1. Compare this to the production of pig (FCR 3:1), cattle (FCR 5-20:1) or even chicken (FCR 2:1) and you quickly realise that fish are a very efficient converter of feed.
However, there are several factors that can influence the FCR that a farm can achieve. Examples are type of feed, feeding strategy, water quality, temperature, etc. Within the ASC Farm Standards the maximum FCR for a specific species is determined. It is then up to the farmer to manage their farm in such a manner that it stays below this limit.
You then have the discussion on the use of marine fish (in the form of fish meal and fish oil) for the production of cultured fish. This is a very emotive issue that is subject to much debate. Some people argue that there should be less fish meal and oil in the feed and they want to substitute it with more plant ingredients, while others argue that if we reduce or eliminate the fish meal and the fish oil ingredients, we have to increase the number of soya, which can create other issues such as increasing the environmental pressure on our rainforests as well as the GMO debate.
It is not a solution to shift to plant ingredients to ‘solve’ problems related to fisheries, since plant ingredient production also has its own specific issues to address.
A number of feed ingredients are under real pressure of overexploitation and most of them have reached the maximum of their capacity. Together we need to find a solution to deal with those resources in such a way that we can also use them in the future.
Helping to reduce the environmental footprint
The challenge is to identify those practices that produce in a responsible manner.
ASC’s role in the feed project is not to influence the debate but to reflect best practice in the standard: that is a level that can only be achieved by the top 15-20 per cent of industry when the standard is released. And, it will be the feed project’s steering committee and working group members who will help develop the requirements that will make up the ASC Feed Standard based on their expertise.
Undoubtedly, this standard will help in moving the aquaculture industry towards more environmentally and socially responsible practices. Broad adoption of the standard will require industry improvements and strong commitment. This will encourage innovation by the producers of the main ingredients used in aquaculture feed production.
With a growing aquaculture sector the demand for feed will grow. Through this standard we can offer the sector a means to reduce the environmental and social impact of their feed use. And, the feed standard will ensure that there is consistency in the way the aquaculture feed industry is asked to address the sustainability and social responsibility issues concerning feed.
My secret hope is that the standard will reach other industries in the future, which will of course be beneficial because they use exactly the same ingredients only in different ratios and volumes. Feed production for pigs, chickens and cattle is much bigger compared to aquafeed production. But, for now, we focus on aquafeed, and take one step at a time.
By Mauricio Mejia, WWF Central America
In 2006, I met for the first time with representatives of the Belize Shrimp Growers Association to talk about what needed to be done to help their shrimp production become more responsible.
At the time, the idea of responsible shrimp production was concentrated around reducing the nutrient load in effluents; this is the waste water from the farm. When the water is released from the ponds, the quality can be very poor and very nutrient rich. If this is released into the local waterways untreated it impacts badly on the other species and affects others who rely on the water.
As the WWF Mesoamerican Reef program officer for aquaculture, my job was to work in partnership with shrimp growers, identifying and implementing better management practices to improve the quality of the waste water that would come from the farms.
On the way to responsibility
Two years later in April 2008, I was organising the first Shrimp Aquaculture Dialogue meeting for shrimp growers of Central American and Mexico to review the international principles for responsible shrimp production and contribute to drafting the shrimp standard. This meeting was one of many across the globe that some 400 people were involved in.
It has been a long journey, but rewarding. In November 2012 I brought together external auditors and shrimp growers of five farms in Belize to carry out a gap analysis, assessing the farms against the developing ASC shrimp standard.
Facing the challenges
As WWF officer, I am facilitating the ongoing project to prepare the eight shrimp farms to comply with the ASC standard. After the gap analysis, the industry was aware that the main bottleneck among farms is paperwork, record keeping and investments in infrastructure to improve effluents management to comply with the ASC standard.
I think a major challenge to comply with ASC certification is the feed standards; growers need to convince feed suppliers to comply with the relevant standards. But so far two of the three feed suppliers have shown a commitment to meet the required standards. So we will get there!
Sustaining the Mesoamerican reef
For Belize shrimp growers the certification means a way to secure markets in Europe and USA, for conservationists like myself the certification of eight shrimp farms means the sustainability of the Mesoamerican reef and for local communities the sustainability of the Belize Shrimp sector means more employment opportunities.
Since 2007 the farms have been reducing their environmental impacts. They have been upgrading or building structures to reduce the nutrients in effluents, and protecting the mangrove forest, which they use as a natural bio filter to remove effluents before the water is released into receiving water ways. Shrimp growers maintain a fluid communication with community leaders along the shrimp belt, together communities and shrimp growers develop strategies to protect the natural resources in the area and the workforce is drawn from the local surrounding communities.
Collaboration is the key
The success of this process has a lot to do with the openness of the secretary of the Belize Shrimp growers Association – a shrimp grower with a genuine interest in the sustainability of the industry and the protection of the natural resources.
Now, 18 months since that gap analysis, I am pleased with the achievements, 95 per cent of the shrimp production in Belize should be able to achieve ASC certification with the help of funding they’ve received. And, I am certain that by the end of 2014 eight shrimp farms in Belize will be ASC certified – after that my challenge will be to replicate this amazing work in other shrimp industries in the Central American region.
By Esther Luiten, ASC’s Commercial Manager
I have been responsible for ASC’s outreach work since mid-October 2013. My primary role is to make sure that committed retail and brand companies can find certified supply and vice versa.
By Sian Morgan, Lead Auditor, SCS Global Services
It’s a sweltering day in Thailand, and the earthen shrimp ponds in front of me appear surprisingly calm, given the large volume of shrimp they contain. I am assessing this farm for an Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) pre-assessment as part of my job as a Lead Auditor for the Conformity Assessment Body (CAB), SCS Global Services (SCS). I look on as the farm manager checks the dissolved oxygen reading and smiles. The device tells us that the dissolved oxygen in the pond is well within levels necessary to maintain a healthy crop.
In the main office, I ask to see the records for water quality monitoring and feed use. I randomly sample a set of months from the past year, and I notice that readings in May showed two days with dissolved oxygen below the limits of the ASC standard. In some cases, this dip in dissolved oxygen would be of concern and could even mean that the shrimp farm would not be eligible to earn ASC certification without a major overhaul of its operations. However, today I am not worried. The record shows unusually hot temperatures in the Surat Thani province on those days, and one of the farm’s aerators had been broken. The farm had replaced its aerator the following day, and dissolved oxygen levels rose to a safe threshold. I record the dissolved oxygen issue as an ‘Observation’ rather than as a non-conformity triggering a Corrective Action Request (CAR). Much to the farm manager’s relief, I tell him that isolated incidents such as this do not prohibit ASC certification; the farm has systems in place that assure that water quality is maintained.
Checking documented procedures in the field
Auditing seafood farms of all different species around the globe, I have learned to look for systemic problems, rather than one-off errors, although both need to be examined. If I see that a shrimp pond was not well designed and that dissolved oxygen levels are regularly low, this would lead to a Major CAR and a barrier to achieving ASC certification until the problem is adequately addressed.
However, I am rarely surprised by what I observe at farms during onsite audits since the purpose of the visit is to confirm that documented procedures are actually implemented in the field. Much of the assessment work occurs off-site during the project scoping and desk review phases. I review the farm’s documentation thoroughly beforehand, which allows me to make efficient use of staff time and minimize any intrusion on farm operations. I may conduct staff interviews away from management to ensure that I’ve received original records, and do ask staff to confirm that what I’m seeing represents standard operations. Most onsite audits last only a few days, out of an assessment process that can take several weeks of work over a period of months.
More to it than meets the eye
One of the most common questions I get from seafood farmers is: “Why do assessments take so long, and why are they so expensive?” Understandable, particularly for someone who only interacts with auditors during a short onsite visit! However, there is a lot more than meets the eye. No two assessments are exactly alike since aquaculture farms use a variety of production techniques. The ASC standards vary by species, and any given standard might contain between 50 and 150 performance measures called ‘Indicators’,each with multiple compliance criteria, which I have to assess in the field.
In addition to time spent on individual project scoping and document review, all CABs are audited themselves by an outside accreditor; in ASC’s case, the accreditation body is Accreditation Services International (ASI). ASI audits our procedures to confirm that we train our staff properly, evaluate clients true to the standards, and remain impartial. SCS tracks all client interactions, project findings and training materials in order to leave a transparent paper trail for ASI. This all takes time and effort that is often invisible to clients.
Cutting-edge sustainability practices becoming mainstream
So what’s in it for me, you might ask? One of the most fulfilling parts of this job is meeting seafood producers and developing a deep understanding of evolving sustainability practices. I helped develop the original ASC shrimp standard, and as the industry learns and as social norms change, formerly cutting-edge sustainability practices are becoming mainstream. Farms and feed companies are coming up with new ways to operate even more efficiently while reducing negative environmental impacts.
It’s important to remember that while small-scale aquaculture has been practiced for thousands of years, particularly in Asia, commercial farming of seafood is a recent phenomenon. Producers are still learning, and practices are evolving rapidly. Shrimp farming in the 1980s was marked by mangrove deforestation, destruction of fragile shoreline ecosystems, and use of small pelagic fish as feed. However, operations are changing, and producers seeking ASC certification are on the leading edge. I’m continually inspired by producers, many of whom have strong commitments to steward their lands and I truly enjoy rewarding their innovations through ASC certification.
By Elies Arps, WWF Netherlands
Being Dutch, I am used to living in a densely populated country where almost all land is cultivated.
Travelling to the southernmost part of Vietnam and overlooking the Mekong Delta on our way to Ca Mau, I did expect to see quite some development, but also the pristine mangrove forests that used to cover the area. I could not have been more wrong.
As far as my eyes can see is agricultural development, plotted through the barren landscape as if it is an endless puzzle. Coming closer I can see rivers meander and notice that most of the pieces of the puzzle are actually the aquaculture ponds that I am going to visit during the week. To be honest, I am shocked.
Of course, having worked for WWF for quite some years already I know that the Mekong Delta is producing a significant part of the world’s farmed pangasius and shrimps. And that includes the seafood that my family and I eat at home. I just didn’t realise the scale of the impact!
Supporting the farms
I am in Vietnam together with a Dutch seafood trading company. We are visiting a WWF Vietnam project where aquaculture farmers are supported in their transition towards a more responsible production of shrimps, based on the ASC Shrimp standard.
The Dutch company is buying farmed shrimps from Vietnam already, but feels uncomfortable with buying from producers that grow their shrimps in an uncontrolled manner. They know that Vietnam’s shrimp farming boomed in the eighties in areas where mangroves have been cut for the creation of the ponds, and medicines are ending up in the surrounding environment. Besides that, most of the shrimp production in Vietnam is done by small farmers, earn a decent living, but have little to invest in adjusting their ponds to meet the standards of ASC.
Without having the time to get used to tropical warmth, we are on our way to visit a shrimp producer that works with WWF in the project. We cross many tributaries of the Mekong river and arrive at the farm where the farm manager is welcoming us, clearly proud of the facility.
Pride in responsibility
We walk across the farm and the manager tells us how he is adjusting the farm to meet the ASC standard for shrimp. A sludge pond has been created to collect the sludge after harvesting one of the farm’s several ponds. After drying, the sludge it is used as fertilizer for the fruit trees that grow on the site.
A sprinkler is feeding the shrimps in one of the ponds. The water moves, but there is no shrimp to be seen from the surface. The pond houses fewer shrimps than before, since the ASC standards requires a specific survival rate of the shrimp in the pond. This encourages the farmer to better manage the pond. The lower density in the pond has caused production to go up since there is less disease and a faster growth rate. The farm manager takes us to one of the small scale shrimp farmers that supplies his company which sells them to the international market.
The farmer lives in a tiny, palm leaf covered house surrounded by both natural water basins and artificial ponds. Here he farms vannamei (or white shrimp) and black tiger shrimp, a species native to this region and consumed worldwide. Mangrove trees surround the ponds, their roots providing shelter to the shrimps and falling leaves providing a natural source of feed. Although harvesting time is early in the morning, the farmer lifts a net and shows us a giant shrimp of around 100 grams. He is smiling from ear to ear.
By Chris Ninnes, ASC’s CEO
At a high level I believe all those involved in farming and selling seafood want to do so with lower environmental and social impacts. We have a shared vision. But when there are costs associated with reducing impacts it can be hard to understand or capture the value needed to bring about the required change. However, to achieve a shared vision and have an impact at the scale that we aim for, I firmly believe it is essential that we work collaboratively with our commercial partners, governments, NGOs and other certification schemes.
A hardwired multi-stakeholder approach
By design, ASC is a multi-stakeholder concept. This started with the development of the standards through the dialogue process coordinated by WWF. And continues through the assessment process where stakeholder input is actively sought. It is also captured within the ASC’s organisational and governance make up, where we seek broad representation. Soon, we will have a Stakeholder Council, which will give us an organisational platform where the views of stakeholders can be both tabled and solicited formally.
When you think about the range of stakeholders that we need to engage with when we promote more responsible aquaculture, it is both diverse and varied. In some regions governments are not in the forefront of engagement, and we work largely with commercial entities and NGOs: but, in other countries, governments are far more involved in sectoral planning and coordination of commercial activity. And, of course, the ASC has to be responsive to this changing landscape. We can’t operate in a vacuum and we have to respect the cultural values of the countries where we want to have an impact.
Making sure the programme is meaningful
This is a challenge that we have only partially taken up at this stage in the development of the ASC. And arguably this is a challenge that we all need to work on collaboratively to deliver our shared vision. We are a young organisation within a young sector but, as the certification movement gains momentum, I think how we evolve and innovate to make our programme more meaningful and relevant for stakeholders globally is a challenge we must take on. It’s essential, if we truly want to see certification (and the ASC) established as catalysts for the change that we want to happen globally.
To do that the programme has to be relevant and there has to be ownership of the programme with those diverse stakeholders. They have to feel that this is not foisted upon them but something that they welcome because they can see the value of it. We will truly be delivering on our shared vision when the value of our collective work is embraced not only in the markets of the developed world but also in those of middle income and emerging market countries.
The ASC has been on Twitter and LinkedIn for a little while now, however, we can’t always provide the information you need in enough detail to be helpful via these channels.
On this blog we’ll be discussing the ASC programme, what it means, the farms, the science and more. Blogs will be from ASC staff and partners who will also share their knowledge, expertise and experience.