UN Agency To Establish Guidelines To Certify Fish

The Fish Site
by The Fish Site
23 April 2007, at 1:00am

ROME - Where did that shrimp scampi you're about to tuck into come from? Do you know? Was a sea turtle accidentally killed when the shrimp were netted? Were the shrimp grown in a pond where once a biodiverse mangrove swamp stood?

What about the bouillabaisse you just ordered? Is the farmed-raised salmon it contains healthy? Does the sea farm it came from pollute, or produce responsibly?

Who'd have ever guessed that eating seafood could be so complicated?

But as the world's appetite for seafood increases and greater amounts of it are farmed in captivity by humans rather than raised in the wild (45% of all fish eaten today), retailers and consumers alike are paying lots more attention to where their fish fry comes from and if it's safe to eat.

One way through the maze, experts say, is certification. Essentially, certification of a seafood product indicates if it was produced in a sustainable, healthy, socially responsible and environmentally-friendly way.

The practice is being used in both capture fisheries and aquaculture with growing frequency. Retailers and consumer groups alike support certification, but still the issue is not without its controversies.

"Establishing transparent, fair and reliable certification schemes is not at all straightforward," explains Lahsen Ababouch of FAO's Fisheries and Aquaculture Department. "Who sets the standards? Can producers be sure they are grounded in good science? Are they out of reach of poor fish farmers in the developing world? Are they a cover for efforts to protect domestic industries? To what extent should private-sector standards supplement governmental consumer protection policies, and how can the two be reconciled? All of these are issues that need to be resolved."

And, he adds, as certification programs proliferate, consumers and producers face choices as to which to trust. Competing schemes could confuse consumers, causing them to loose confidence in standards and undermine the entire approach.

Putting certification standards on the same page

Fair certification schemes create a market mechanism that supports sustainable fish farming.

FAO recently began collaborating with the non-profit Network for Aquaculture Centres in the Asia Pacific (NACA) to hold consultations with a large group of certification bodies, producer groups, processors and consumer organizations in order to draw up global guidelines on how aquaculture certification standards ought to be established and applied.

"The idea is to bring together a broad group of all the different people involved in the industry, look at what's already being done in terms of certification, and come up with an overarching framework that can help put aquaculture certification schemes on the same page," says Rohana Subasinghe, also with FAO's Fisheries and Aquaculture Department. "That will help ensure that certification standards, wherever they are being applied, are credible, trustworthy, and fair and will give producers clear goals to shoot for."

The guidelines won't be certification standards in and of themselves but rather a shared roadmap that will help ensure that whoever is certifying farmed seafood -- be it a government, an NGO, or a private company -- is going about it in a common way, he added.

The group recently held its first workshop in Bangkok. The event brought together 72 representatives of certification bodies, aquaculture farmer associations, governments, and major buyers from 20 countries across the world's major aquaculture producing and importing regions.

"There was wide consensus on the roadmap that is being proposed, that certification schemes should address four main areas: food safety and quality, social impacts of fish farming on local communities, environmental issues and economic feasibility," notes Ababouch.

A follow-up workshop is scheduled to take place later this year in Brazil, following which FAO and NACA will undertake a series of public consultations with various stakeholders on the issues with the goal of presenting a draft set of international guidelines for consideration by governments at the next meeting of the UN Agency's Subcommittee on Aquaculture, to be held in November 2008 in Chile.

FAO has already developed similar guidelines for eco-labelling of fish products from marine and inland capture fisheries (See story linked at right).