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25 years of welfare

How fish health and welfare certifications have evolved

May 7, 2024  By Bonnie Waycott

(Photo: Photography by Adri/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

Following a significant decline in fish stocks from 90 per cent in 1974 to 65.8 per cent in 2017, aquaculture had emerged as an alternative source of seafood by the late 1980s. However, negative effects on the environment and local communities spurred resistance and social movements by the early 1990s. 

During this period, consumer concerns about seafood safety and quality, market demands for sustainably sourced farmed seafood and aspirations to upgrade the socio-environmental performance of aquaculture production emerged, according to Choyon Saha at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. 

“These challenges pressured seafood retailers and aquaculture industry representatives to create certification schemes in 1997 to ensure sustainable aquaculture production,” said Saha. 

“Environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs), civil society, private sectors and fish production associations came forward to create more aquaculture certification schemes, notably the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), Friends of the Sea (FOS), Naturland, BioGro and Global Seafood Alliance (GSA). Their aim is to mitigate the social and environmental impacts of aquaculture production, ensure food safety and quality and improve fish health and welfare.” 


The beginning
In 2010, ASC was established. In its early years, it developed and implemented standards for various aspects of aquaculture, one of which was fish welfare. Comprehensive standards for farmed fish were drawn up during the initial phase and a certification process for farms that met these standards was initiated. ASC also engaged in pilot projects with early adopters in aquaculture to test and refine initial standards in real-world farming conditions, and helped farmers and stakeholders understand and implement the best practices outlined in the standards. Today, the assessment process for farms seeking ASC certification involves a thorough evaluation of their practices, such as water quality and disease management in relation to fish health and welfare. ASC also gathers feedback from certified farms, stakeholders and experts, as part of its ongoing commitment to improvement.

The certification program addresses, mitigates, and prevents poor fish health and welfare, resulting in a comprehensive multi-faceted approach encompassing ethical, economic, environmental and regulatory considerations. It supports an operational definition of welfare defined by the physical and mental state of an animal in relation to the conditions in which it lives and its capacity to cope with the environment.

“The overall purpose of health and welfare in the ASC scheme is not just an isolated objective, but a central theme that addresses a myriad of contemporary global challenges, including food security, ecosystem resilience, carbon emissions, ocean pollution, overfishing and threats to public health,” said Maria Filipa Castanheira, Fish Welfare coordinator at ASC. “Recognizing the interlinkage of these issues, animal health and welfare in aquaculture emerges as a critical element, offering a multidimensional approach to safeguarding humans, animals and the environment.”

Health and welfare practices on ASC certified farms have transformed significantly over the years, says Castanheira, with improved biosecurity, effective disease prevention through vaccines and enhanced staff care and development. The salmon industry, in particular, exemplifies advanced technological and biosecurity measures, emphasizing disease prevention, effective vaccines and optimal fish care. While acknowledging new challenges, it’s essential to recognize the progress made. 

“Sea lice remain a concern, but their impact is nowhere near that of aquaculture’s early days,” said Castanheira. “Significant strides have also been made in the slaughter of salmon, with harvest, slaughter and processing plants achieving highly efficient and humane practices. These advancements are attributed to dedicated individuals and remarkable technological developments that have played a pivotal role in enhancing overall effectiveness.” 

More recently, ASC launched the Fish Welfare project in 2019. A set of indicators covering fish welfare, followed by another set for shrimp and cleaner fish, was developed during the initial phase. By integrating these into the ASC Farm Standard, the project aims to enable stakeholders to understand ASC health and welfare commitments across all certified species. The ASC Farm Standard is due for release in Q3 2024 and will become effective in Q3 2025.  

“Having clear requirements on fish health and welfare combined with ASC staff expertise will bring many opportunities and benefit the wider ASC program,” said Castanheira. “The growing focus on ethical and sustainable practices, propelled by consumer preferences, regulatory advancements, and global sustainability objectives, is expected to result in an increased number of farms pursuing certifications, with a particular emphasis on those addressing fish welfare.” 

The U.S. example
Alongside environmental and social responsibility and food safety, fish welfare is one of four key pillars of the Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) certification program built by the Global Seafood Alliance (GSA) in the US. GSA, formerly known as Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA), was an early pioneer in using certification standards to drive improvements in responsible aquaculture. 

The GAA’s first certification program was the Shrimp Farm Standard in 2003, followed by the Shrimp Hatchery Standard in 2004. The program was then formalized, bringing in external technical committees, an overarching standards oversight committee, and an ISO17065-compliant audit process involving the onboarding of independent certification bodies and auditors. Following this shift, GAA set out to produce additional standards and bring the shrimp standards under this new model. 

“These standards are specifically related to setting maximum biomass limits based on a facility’s design, fish health and survival, managing feeding to avoiding stress from under- or over-feeding, and setting limits to fasting, crowding and time out of water,” said David Dietz, manager of Standards Oversight at GSA. 

“They are also related to regularly inspecting the culture facility, water quality and behaviour of fish, providing written health management plans that include biosecurity measures, the involvement of fish health specialists for disease diagnosis and treatment, and practising harvest, transport and slaughter processes with animal welfare in mind.”

These are some of the initial animal welfare interventions and improvements that have been added to the BAP program and refined over the years. With the move to the ISO model, BAP facilities must comply with 100 per cent of all components of the standard to be certified. Auditors assess for full conformity and facilities must address all non-conformities to achieve certification. This assures that these new animal welfare interventions are being addressed everywhere equally. 

“BAP’s goal has always been to advocate and advance responsible practices around the globe, and animal welfare is a key component to that,” said Dietz. “The program listens to science and relevant stakeholders on what best practice looks like on an aquaculture farm and how it can promote that through standards. The issues and focuses change over time, but our constant goal has always been continuous improvement and industry engagement. Improvements we’ve seen on farms include lower mortalities, fewer disease outbreaks, improved slaughter, transport and handling practices and better general welfare outcomes per animal.” 

Is it enough?
Certifications represent an assurance around the processes on farms to raise the animals in question. A BAP certification as it relates to animal welfare means that the farm’s procedures are fully compliant with the standard’s animal health and welfare requirements, says Dietz. The assurance here is that farms have the correct procedures, personnel and resources to meet the requirements outlined in the standard. 

“However, farms must ensure that they have the right staff so that necessary measures are always taken, while management must seriously commit to monitoring so that farms remain certified and in line with best practices,” said Dietz.

Castanheira agrees that the effectiveness of ASC standards relies on varied implementation and enforcement across different contexts. She says that while recognizing certification as a key element, farms must adopt a multi-faceted approach with continuous monitoring, dedicated research to enhance welfare practices, educational initiatives, transparent practices within the industry and collaborative efforts with stakeholders. Only through this holistic strategy can farms truly address the welfare of farmed species, extending beyond the confines of certification and covering the diverse challenges that aquaculture faces. 

Certification can also do more for better impact beyond health and welfare, says Saha. One example is addressing the vulnerability of small-scale farmers to exclusion. 

“These farmers don’t have enough money for the assessment process and certification because it’s expensive,” he said. “To address this, certification programs may need to change their standards, rules, principles or codes of practice. A discount for small-scale farmers may also help.” 

“Small-scale farmers dominate the aquaculture sector and may have limited resources, so they represent the greatest risk in the value chain if their capacity and interests are not addressed,” agrees Castanheira. “To address this gap, the ASC Improver Programme was created to support farms that are interested in becoming certified or improve their practices but are not yet meeting expectations in terms of performance. As fish health and welfare are usually matters that farms in improvement see as a challenge, tailoring the program with inputs on these two topics has enabled improvements in farming practices and, ultimately, the uptake of the program.”

Hopes are high that certification programs like the ASC and BAP can continue to operationalize health and welfare by creating a common industry language for what good aquatic welfare looks like and how to improve it.
“Our goal with all standards and standard updates is to reflect agreed best practice, but in a way that is attainable for responsible producers in the industry to help support a supply of responsibly farmed seafood in the marketplace,” said Dietz. 

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