The certification scheme operated by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) is one of the most widely used and recognised in the seafood sector.
So far in Scotland, 22 salmon farms are ASC-certified, representing 10% of the industry.
Mowi was the first to be ASC-certified, in 2015, and Scottish Sea Farms announced its first ASC-certified farms in May 2022.
Given that the ASC scheme has been around for quite a few years now, why has it taken so long to be taken up in Scotland? As Michiel Fransen, Head of Standards and Science with the ASC explains, there are two factors. The first is a technical one: concerns over the impacts of cage-culture smolt production in freshwater lochs have now been addressed by setting strict requirements that these producers need to meet for the smolts to become ASC-eligible. As trout cage-culture in freshwater lochs was already permitted by the ASC Standards, this had presented an unbalanced approach to addressing the overarching environmental concerns.
The salmon standard was changed in 2019 to bring it into line with the standard for trout, and this has opened the way for salmon farmers.
The other factor is market focus – the ASC is now proactively marketing its certification scheme to producers and retailers in the. The ASC label appears on food from farms that have been independently assessed to meet the highest environmental and socially responsible standards in the industry, from water quality to community interaction.
‘It is a very open and transparent process’
Although Mowi’s Loch Leven seawater farm was certified in 2015, the freshwater smolt issue held back further progress until the standard was revised.
Loch Lochy and Glenfinnan, smolt farms in freshwater lochs, were certified in 2020, followed by the seawater farms at Loch Linnhe, Gorsten, Marulaig Bay and Stulaigh in January 2021.
At the time of writing there are 23 ASC-certified Mowi Scotland sites, including Loch Leven which is currently being recertified; 18 of these are seawater sites.
Kate Stronach, Sustainability and Compliance Manager, Mowi Scotland, talked to Fish Farmer about the process, which starts with a “gap analysis” comparing the ASC requirements with where the site is, and identifying whether there is anything which needs to change or improve.
Stronach says: “The compliance team talks to the site managers. We carry out an internal audit ahead of the external audit. There is already a lot of certification that our sites are compliant with [including RSPCA Assured, and Global GAP, another international scheme] so we know that there will be areas in which we already meet the standards.”
The external audit is then carried out by a “CAB” (Certification Accredited Body), not by the ASC itself. Mowi uses LRQA, a spin-off from Lloyd’s Register. The process typically takes two days of intensive interviews and verification by the auditors. Ahead of the audit there is a six week announcement window, to ensure that relevant stakeholders are aware of the audit.
The operator being audited is obliged to put together a list of relevant local stakeholders – ranging from local businesses and marine sports clubs to local authorities and environmental groups. When the audit report comes out, there is a three week consultation with the stakeholders.
Stronach says: “It is a very open and transparent process, which is an important component of this certification.”
She adds: “ASC is a robust standard for producers and for their customers. There are more than 100 indicators. The ASC standard also requires continuous improvement, once you have set a baseline. For example, you need to show that you are continuing to reduce the use of antibiotics.
“We have always had a good record keeping culture, but the standard can require different ways of recording and reporting. For example, for the ‘social responsibility’ actions, we have always been strong on engagement with the community, but now we have to document what we do, which is good because it means our farm sites can be recognised for what they are doing.”
‘We can show we are part of that elite group’
For Scottish Sea Farms (SSF), its three Summer Isles sites were the first to achieve ASC certification. Anna Price, Aquaculture Technical Lead with SSF, says: “I was first asked to look at this in September 2019, so I examined the ASC criteria to see what farms might be most suitable.
“Then I worked through the seven principles of the ASC’s standards. The majority of the time, we were already doing everything that was required. Scottish Sea Farms is already farming to a very high standard, so it’s been about adding the processes and procedures that certification requires.”
Price and her team carried out an internal audit and then consulted the external auditors on what further might need to be done. The audit itself involved two auditors over two days, one covering technical issues and the other looking at social, health and safety and human resources factors.
Price says: “They carried out interviews with staff behind closed doors, and observed every part of the farm: for example, how we perform health checks on the fish.”
Not only did the Summer Isles farms pass with flying colours, but the company’s processing and packing facilities at South Shian and Scalloway also achieved “chain of custody” certification, confirming that the necessary procedures are in place to ensure that fish carrying the ASC logo are indeed ASC-certified.
Scottish Sea Farms now aims to have a further four sites certified this year, with the audit for one of these, Lober Rock in Orkney, having recently taken place.
Price says: “Achieving ASC certification can only be a good thing for all concerned. We can show we are part of that elite group of certified farms.”
Price says that benefits can come when a change to meet the standards also improves performance: “I don’t like box-ticking. I always want to ask how we can make a procedure more meaningful. So, where we identify room for further improvement, we’ll act on it, not just at the individual farm but across our estate.”
So what advice do the pioneers have for farmers looking to achieve certification? Kate Stronach says: “Familiarise yourself with the standard, assess your sites and the standards you are already working to. Where there are gaps, you will have to put the effort into bridging those gaps.”
Price says: “I won’t lie, it’s all pretty tough! But you need to surround yourself with a good, knowledgeable team who understand what you are doing and why. And you need to take your time.”
Setting a robust standard
The ASC scheme is certainly not the only certification programme available to the industry. The major producers in Scotland are, for example, also audited to Global GAP and the welfare standards set by RSPCA Assured, as well as statutory inspections.
Michiel Fransen says one of the factors that marks out the ASC is its transparency. The ASC is itself independently audited and assessed to ensure that its standards are robust, and the certification process is open to scrutiny.
He adds: “Continuous improvement is also a key point. We see the biggest changes when companies initially achieve certification, but we see a continuing impact on improvements in, for example, sea lice controls or social engagement.”
The ASC is also trialling an additional traceability system for certified produce.
Fransen says that the ASC mark is well recognised by retailers now, and the organisation has helped to inform the public debate over seafood production and its impact.
He stresses, however, that the ASC is not looking for growth at all costs: “We do not believe or expect that every farm can meet the standard. Our programme is based on impacts through setting robust standards, underpinned by credible assurance.”