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New Canadian Organic Aquaculture Standards: Don’t Get Excited

This week the Canadian Standards Association unveiled their new Canadian Organic Aquaculture Standards. Farmed fish isn’t specifically addressed in most organic standards certifications, so the new standards aim to fix that. We should be excited, right? I’m not so sure. It seems to me that the standards fail to raise the bar adequately, and may actually lower it in some regards.

So what’s the deal with this certification, why do we need it? Where does it succeed and where does it fall short?

According to the press release from the Canadian Organic Trade Association (CATO) and the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance (CAIA), “Aquaculture, the farming of aquatic plants and animals, is the fastest growing food production system in the world, producing about 50 percent of the seafood consumed today.” With that kind of growth, and burgeoning interest in sustainable seafood,  you can see why there is a need to define what the label “organic” means to aquaculture.

Until now there hasn’t been an official definition of “organic aquaculture”, not even in our Canadian Organic label. Fish farming seems to fall somewhere between agriculture and animal husbandry, as well it has it’s own set of concerns since the farming is done in water not on land. Certifying bodies were essentially left to their own discretion over how to apply land-based principles to water-based operations when certifying fish farms. You can see the problem.

So what about these new standards? Back to that press release:

“Specifically, the organic aquaculture standard prohibits the use of antibiotics, herbicides and genetically modified organisms, and severely restricts the use parasiticides, allowed only under veterinary supervision as a last course of treatment. The standard sets measurable requirements for practices that minimize the impact of waste. These include defining stocking rates, cleaning procedures and the cleaning and feed materials that must be used. “

Sounds good, right?  Not everyone agrees. And I think critics have some valid points.

One of the biggest criticisms is that the open-net fish farms can qualify for the organic label. Open-net farms have been widely criticised by environmental and conservation groups, as well as scientists, as being severely damaging to local ecosystems. Furthermore, according to a press release by a coalition of organizations, many of the large open-net salmon farms off the coast of BC would qualify as organic with only minor changes to their current practices. That statement really blew my socks off.   As well the coalition argues that the standard would allow:

  • The use of synthetic pesticides;
  • The continued, uncontrollable spread of disease and parasites to wild fish;
  • Uncontrolled disposal of fish feces into the ocean;
  • Escapes of farmed fish that compete or interbreed with wild fish;
  • Entanglement and drowning deaths of marine mammals;
  • The unrestricted use of feed from non-organic, potentially unsustainable sources, as opposed to the 100 per cent organic feed requirement currently in place for all other organic livestock;
  • The unlimited use of wild fish in feed. Since operations use substantially more wild fish in feed than farmed salmon produced, this allows farmed fish to be certified “organic” despite contributing to a net loss of marine protein and a drain on already strained global fish stocks.

Those are some pretty significant criticisms.

Standards are also being developed in the United States. While still allowing open-net farms, they are much more severely restricted. These include:

  • Net-cages will not be allowed where they could impact the reproduction or migratory routes of wild fish or other marine life.
  • The use of wild fish in feed will be limited to trimmings and waste from environmentally responsible fisheries. The ratio of fish in feed to farmed fish produced cannot be greater than 1:1 with continual reductions over time.
  • Only indigenous species of local genotype can be used in net-cage production due to the inability to eliminate the risk of escapes.
  • 50% of waste nutrients (nitrogen & phosphorous) must be re-captured from net-cages.
  • No antibiotics or chemical parasiticides can be used.

While far from ideal, it is still better than the Canadian standards. A more sustainable choice would be to only allow closed-pen farms, or in-land farms with adequate recirculation and waste water management systems.

The allowance of non-organic feed in the organic certification is particularly confusing to me, since it clearly contrasts with land-based organic standards which explicitly prohibit any kind of non-organic feed. Why allow it in fish farming? And on a similar note, allowing any practice that is known to be environmentally damaging, such as open-net farming, would also seem to violate the underlying philosophy of organic principles. Maybe this is why in the press release, CATO and CAIA are pretty clear that their standards are not part of the broader Canadian Organic Products certification maintained by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency:

“The new national standard does not currently fall under the scope of Canada’s Organic Products Regulations or Canada’s trade equivalencies for organic products with the United States or European Union.”

Other criticisms of the new organic aquaculture standards is that representatives from industry (14) far outnumbered those from consumer associations (2), advocacy groups (2) and even government (6). Even with the other 10 officials on the committee representing “general interest”, it’s easy to see how the voice of industry interests possibly outweighed the voices of conservation groups and consumers. I wonder if Native fisherman were included in the process?

In an interview for an article in the Vancouver Sun, a spokesperson for the Canadian Organic Trade Association said that critics should view the new Canadian organic aquaculture as “a beginning” to be reviewed within five years. I’d rather the “beginning” get off to a late but solid start, rather than the weak one that they’ve unveiled. They need to go back to the drawing table now. How likely is it that they will revisit the standards within five years anyway?

If they want to keep the standard, keep it… but don’t call it organic. Call it a Canadian Aquaculture Standard. Even develop an eco-labeling program around it. Just don’t confuse consumers by calling it organic. It’s not.

Photo Credit: Ian Britton, creative commons license

Posted in Articles, News, Various.

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3 Responses

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  1. The Exclamation says

    > The allowance of non-organic feed in the organic certification is particularly confusing to me

    Yeah, that’s the one that gets me, too.

    The way certain companies have self-proclaimed “smart choices” or whatever they call them, by which they pretend their junk food is good for you because it meets one or two very broad criteria, this looks to me like someone figured out that the word “organic” increases sales, and is trying to find an excuse to put that word on the label, regardless of what the word truly means.


  2. Rachel Easson says

    Yum yum! Are some of these enterprises going to feed these not-so-organic not-so-eco-friendly salmon AquaBounty frankenfish too — or just the ones that will escape into the wild?

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Heirloom Tomatoes, Organic Fish, Happy Hens, and Veg*n Holiday Recipes: Link Roundup – The Mindful Table linked to this post on November 29, 2013

    […] is a slippery one. I’ve written before about the trouble with Canada’s proposed organic aquaculture standards. The troubles are the same south of the border. One of the biggest concerns is that they still […]

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