Global approach

Salmon in a fish farm

Instead of a dozen species-specific standards, the ASC is rolling out one. Robert Outram finds out why

The Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) is one of the leading standard-setting bodies in the sector – and its new Farm Standard is set to bring in some major changes.

The final consultation period on the new Farm Standard has just ended, and the ASC staff are working through responses, ahead of finalising the Standard.

The biggest difference is that, instead of the existing range of species-specific standards, the new Farm Standard comes in the form of a single global, robust standard. The Farm Standard addresses, in particular, environmental and human rights impacts of aquaculture, regardless of production system or location of the farm. It also includes new requirements on animal health and welfare, contributing to lower stress and better wellbeing.

Launching the last round of consultation earlier this year, ASC CEO Chris Ninnes said: “This new Standard will draw together years of experience, research and input from a range of ASC stakeholders spanning many backgrounds. It is a milestone development not only for ASC certification, but also for responsibly produced farmed seafood worldwide.”

Michiel Fransen, ASC

Michiel Fransen, ASC

Fish Farmer talked to Michiel Fransen, ASC’s Director of Standards and Science, about the thinking behind the new Standard and how the organisation plans to take it forward.

First, what are the most far-reaching elements of the new Farm Standard? Fransen points to the revised environmental elements, especially as regards the benthic (seabed) and water quality requirements, which have been improved.

He says: “Within both criteria, we have content that allows the Standard to be more tailored towards the site’s specific circumstances, and that means that the Standard becomes more relevant for the variety of production systems and regions that the ASC Programme covers.

“We’ve referred to the concept a number of times as saying the bigger the impact, the stricter the Standard becomes.”

This means that in a more sensitive area the requirements will be stricter – such as for a fish farm in a protected marine area, or one situated in the same body of water as a number of other farms.

Fransen also points to “Principle 4” which for the first time sets out a general principle for animal health and welfare in aquaculture.

This includes “operational welfare indicators” such as observable wounds and behaviour. The Standard is also prescriptive regarding the slaughter process and permitted slaughter methods.

Shrimp

Shrimp

Fransen explains: “We’ve composed a number of technical working groups on these welfare-related topics and there’s now actually a lot of evidence of scientific understanding of what is better practice when it comes to slaughter, and generic welfare, available for the majority of species in the ASC Programme.

“The previous standards either had seven or eight principles depending on the document.

“The welfare component was far less advanced compared to where it is now, and that’s something that we’ve sought to improve in this new version.”
These revised requirements on benthic impacts, water quality and welfare are likely to require more action and attention on the part of the industry. To help them comply, the ASC is implementing a transition period, with clear communication on the new rules, and also offering a service to advise and guide farmers.

The Standard also comes with an embedded calculation methodology, which is in essence an easy way for producers to calculate their greenhouse gas emissions, not only on site, but also down into the supply chain. This will help not only producers, but also the retailers they supply, to report their carbon footprint.

Trout breeding facility

Trout breeding facility

Fransen says: “The Standard gets support from the various stakeholder groups that we have that we have interviewed, but they also are quite open on the challenges, especially on the timeline to implement these new practices moving forward.”

ASC is now reviewing and analysing the comments received in this final round and Fransen says they will be accommodated wherever possible.

He adds: “We have, of course, consulted a number of times before. This is the sixth round of consultation in total on parts or the entirety of the document, and throughout those various consultation rounds we’ve sought to incorporate all the feedback generated so far.”

There will also be a training portal set up for producers, auditors and NGOs, so that all the stakeholders directly involved get the same, and the best, understanding of what the ASC Farm Standard requires.

The consultation process for this new Standard has been as thorough as the ASC could make it, with engagement from stakeholder groups across the spectrum, including producers, academics, NGOs, governments and retail partners.

In addition, ASC has also carried out more than 40 interviews with producers and NGOs. The technical staff at several government agencies also have an input through their membership of the ASC’s technical committees.

ASC is seeking to evaluate feedback and finalise the Standard by the end of this year. The document will then be released into the public domain by Q1 of next year, 2025, probably around the time of the next Seafood Expo Global in Barcelona.

That release will start a 24-month transition period before the Standard becomes mandatory for all farms in the Programme.

The new Farm Standard replaces 12 existing species standards, which up to now have covered for more than 2,000 certified farms. It still spells out species-specific parameters within the document, however.

fish in pen

Fish in pen

Fransen explains: “Certain criteria or certain indicators apply only to specific culture systems or to specific species in specific culture systems, and that allows us to tailor it [the Standard] as we go through the document.”

One criticism of international standards in aquaculture is that compliance is feasible for large, well-funded producers but a real challenge for the many small operators around the world, especially in the global south.

#Fransen acknowledges this but explains what ASC is doing to address the issue: “First, it’s important that the Standards are translated, so they are accessible to producers, together with the needed support on training and guidance material.

“Also, there is a category of producers that simply needs time in order to make the changes and to work up towards meeting the Standard.”

For that ‘pillar’, or category of work, ASC has developed the ‘ASC Improver Programme’ with guidance and resources allowing producers to make steady progression over a number of years, in an assessed and controlled manner. ASC also recently launched ASC Group Certification, allowing groups of smaller producers to work together to achieve certification, lowering the cost for each producer while maintaining the stringent ASC standards.

There is no doubting the ASC’s ambition for this document to be setting the global standard for responsible and sustainable aquaculture.

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