The problem with certified factory farmed salmon

The Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) has lowered its standards supporting the theory that it has been captured by the industry it is supposed to scrutinise

The Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) is one of several bodies overseeing purported assurance schemes for the production of farmed salmon designed to reassure consumers. It defines standards that enable the final product to be ‘certified’ according to these. The standards relate to a wide range of issues that have frequently been highlighted as of concern.

One such issue is that of infection by sea lice. These parasitise fish, though, in the wild, their impact on salmon is normally not significant. However, in the context of large numbers of salmon confined in pens, sea lice can proliferate and become a major problem. Sea lice eat the salmon’s skin, predominantly attacking the head and neck, ultimately causing the fish to die of exposure. Internationally, sea lice infestation results in high mortalities of fish, and causes great welfare harm.

Recently, the ASC chose to revise its standards relating to lice infestation – downwards. Previously, the relevant standard required that an individual fish farm should ensure that lice infestation rates were no higher than 0.1 lice per fish. This has now been revised to align with levels set by local legal jurisdictions, ranging (currently) from 0.2 to 0.5 lice per fish.

There appears to be a rather touching faith here in the objectivity and reliability of regulations (or those approving them). After all, these are most often politically based and are particularly influenced by the lobbying of industrial interests. They invariably place little emphasis on animal welfare, and often downgrade environmental considerations. Some such regulations are based on ‘codes of practice’ formulated by the industry itself. The acceptance of local regulations in place of a higher common standard is surprising in relation to Principle 1 of the ASC standards that producers should ‘meet their legal obligations as a baseline standard’, making explicit that the new ASC standard is no more than a legal baseline.

When contacted recently, the ASC stated that, ‘ASC has not increased the limit of sea lice level but instead used the regional limits with the understanding that this is based on solid research and data’, in direct contradiction to information provided on their own website which seeks to provide a rationale for just such changes. Prior to the change in the standard, producers in several countries had already sought to move away from the 0.1 standard, using certain ASC provisions allowing for regional variations. Others had clearly been pressing for changes in the standards.

It seems strange that a purported ‘minimum standard’ might differ regionally, particularly when the regions concerned are far from homogenous and often very large. The explanation provided by the ASC is that regional ‘species, population and geographic’ differences justify such variation. If one was thinking from a fish welfare point of view, this seems particularly difficult to justify. However, the primary stated purpose of the standard is not to protect the welfare of the farmed fish; it is intended to protect juvenile wild salmon that could be contaminated. As such, the levels of lice infestation are required, according to the standard, to be met only during ‘sensitive periods’ when nearby migratory salmon might be affected. It is not clear that there is a sound scientific basis for the levels that vary according to jurisdiction even in this regard.

A reading of the ASC standards makes it very clear indeed that the welfare of the farmed fish themselves has a very low priority. The emphasis is, instead, on environmental and social/community impacts. The introduction to the ASC standards states, ‘The goal of the ASC standards is to provide a means to measurably improve the environmental and social performance of aquaculture operations’. No reference to animal welfare here.

It is difficult not to conclude that this is yet another case of ‘institutional capture’, whereby an industry assurance scheme purporting to inform and protect the consumer actually serves the needs and interests of the producers themselves. These have an overriding concern for impression management and just love assurance schemes which provide an exonerating rubber stamp. It is particularly saddening, that there should be so little consideration of animal welfare in the standards. The fish reared can suffer so much – from overcrowding and injury, inability to express natural behaviour, disease and parasitism. One might have thought the animals from which the producers take so much might be given more consideration.

In its defence of the revised lice standards, the ASC emphasises a ‘holistic’ approach, rather than one that relies on any specific requirement. If, similarly, one adopts a ‘holistic’ view of the salmon farming industry, it is very difficult to justify its existence. While standards may be formulated to address specific harms, in combination these are massive – from the welfare harms and disease of the farmed fish, the massive, unsustainable consumption of wild fish, pollution of waterways, contamination of wild populations and interbreeding with them, and so it goes on.

The revision to the ASC lice standard in collusion with industry represents a very good reason for being highly sceptical of such schemes.