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Tilapia standard showcases continuing growth of aquaculture

Detail from photo by 'hillary h' via Flickr under creative commons

The first farmed fish certified under a standard backed by one of the world’s biggest conservation groups hits the market today, showcasing the continued rise in the importance of aquaculture, or fish farming.

Today the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) announced that tilapia from Indonesia have become the first fish to meet its standards. The council was set up in 2009 by the Dutch sustainable-trade group IDH and the conservation group WWF. The announcement that some tilapia farms have gained ASC certification — which should allow their products to be sold at a higher price to environmentally conscious consumers — comes amid criticism from some quarters of sustainable standards for wild fish.

For today’s launch, only a handful of Indonesian tilapia farms have been awarded the ASC certification for their fish. But the involvement of major conservation non-governmental organizations in the ‘aquaculture dialogues’ that developed the standards now being overseen by the council is telling.

Fish farms have been attacked in the past by conservation groups, both for the pollution they can produce locally and for the fact that many of them use wild-caught fish to produce their farmed animals, adding pressure on often over-exploited wild stocks.

Tilapia are significantly different from aquaculture mainstays such as salmon and tuna in that they thrive in conditions that would not be suitable for other species and they can be fed mainly on non-fish-based feed. The ASC standards specify that tilapia carrying its brand can only be fed 0.8 kilograms of wild fish for every kilogram of tilapia produced.

Tilapia are relatively uncontroversial as an aquaculture fish, precisely because they can grow on a very low proportion of wild-caught fish. But the ASC has also produced standards for predators higher up the oceans food web, such as salmon.

“If you look at aquaculture and how it’s been growing, today aquaculture supplies almost half the sea food we see on the grocery store shelves,” says José Villalón, vice-president of aquaculture at WWF-US. “It is here to stay.”

Villalón cites projections that aquaculture will have to double in the next 40 years to meet demand as one of the driving forces behind conservation groups getting involved in certification.

“If you’re going to double you have to get it right. We’re living on a finite planet,” he says.

Other conservations groups are watching developments. Pablo Trujillo of Greenpeace — which was involved in the aquaculture dialogues — says that the criteria are good but some of the requirements are sometimes vague or insufficient for truly sustainable fish stocks. He suggests that it may be time to move away from simple yes or no certification, and introduce a tiered system, for example with a gold standard for fish truly produced under ideal and sustainable conditions, and a lesser certificate for those better than most and improving but not there yet.


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