It has never been clearer just how urgent it is for humanity to find a balance between the needs of our societies and the protection of our environment and wildlife.
The way we produce our food can have a big impact on the wildlife we share the planet with. Of course, all food production has environmental and social impacts; producing food is an interaction with nature, and one which must therefore leave a trace. But these impacts can be mitigated and reduced with responsible practices.
One of the biggest potential impacts of any food production is on biodiversity; whether that’s through deliberately or accidentally removing vital habitats, or changing environments until certain species can no longer survive, the end result of irresponsible production can be the destruction of biodiversity and loss of wildlife. Beyond the obvious moral problems with this, a planet with less biodiversity also poses a threat to humans – by altering the delicate balance of ecosystems we set off chain reactions with unpredictable consequences that we may not be able to stop.
All of which is why ASC takes wildlife and biodiversity protection extremely seriously. Before they are certified, all ASC farms must carry out a Biodiversity Environmental Impact Assessment (B-EIA), or equivalent assessment of the farm’s potential impacts on biodiversity and the environment. This assessment must include an analysis of local biodiversity opportunities and constraints, with an aim to ensure that no net loss of biodiversity takes place These assessments must also be shared with local stakeholders and communities, who will of course also have a stake in the protection of local ecosystems.
All ASC Standards have a zero-tolerance approach towards the killing of marine mammals and birds that are red-listed as endangered. The death of any species must be recorded and publicised transparently. Where there is a particular risk of impact on certain species, the ASC standard will include specific limits on lethal incidents.
One big potential impact of farming is the destruction of habitats and the ecosystems that depended on them. Many habitats have been identified by international agreements or protocols as critical for endangered species, or otherwise vital and in need of protection – all such habitats are also protected by ASC standards. An example is mangroves: these forests play a crucial role by protecting coastlines, storing carbon, and hosting ecosystems, but they are often sited in areas where shrimp farming is prevalent, which can put them at risk. A shrimp farm cannot be certified if it was built after 1999 in a mangrove ecosystem or other natural wetlands. Similar protections are in place for other vital ecosystems such as seagrass meadows.
Farming can play a vital role in protection wild populations of fish by producing the protein we need without depleting finite stocks of wild fish. But only if it is done responsibly: if not, farming can impact on nearby wild populations in a number of ways. This is why ASC farms must carefully look after the health of their fish, monitoring and mitigating risks such from diseases and parasites. This is important from a welfare standpoint, but it also helps protect nearby wild populations from these same diseases and parasites. Similar protections come from ASC’s stringent requirements on the responsible use of chemical and medications. Farmed fish can affect wild populations in a more direct way if they escape: they can compete with wild fish, or breed with them and impact the genetic make-up of wild populations. There are strict limits on escapes when it comes to ASC farms, which must have plans in place to prevent them. If an escape does occur, it must be reported publicly.
There are also less direct or obvious impacts: the feed used in aquaculture can contain a wide range of ingredients which each have their own environmental impacts. The ASC’s upcoming Feed Standard requires that all feed ingredients, whether produced on land or at sea, are sourced responsibly and transparently. And farms can, like everyone else, produce plastic waste and pollution. The scale of the problem of plastic waste in the oceans has become well known in recent years, and aquaculture is by no means a major contributor to this problem, but ASC is taking action on this important issue nonetheless. We produced a white paper looking at the issue and the particular risks of marine litter and plastic waste from aquaculture, and these findings have been shared with the UN and International Marine Organisation to help in their own work on this problem. They have also been used to produce new requirements for ASC farms ensuring they properly record and dispose of all their plastic equipment.
Aquaculture is not unique in having potential impacts on biodiversity: all food production does, in different ways. At ASC we have looked at the specific impacts of fish farming and produced standards which tackle these, ensuring that no matter what species is being farmed, ASC farmers are always working to reduce their impacts, and find the right balance with their local ecosystems.