Human Stories

Farmed Fish | The ASC Certification Label | Buying Sustainable Aquaculture

Have you ever spotted a light green ASC label on various seafood products? The ASC label manages responsible aquaculture and is the younger brother to the blue MSC logo. So what standards need to be met to gain the green sticker?

The Difference Between MSC Label & ASC Label

To ease your search for certified sustainable seafood, the MSC and ASC labels both indicate whether the seafood you are looking at has been sustainably sourced. So, what is the difference between them? 

MSC, or Marine Stewardship Council certifications, are used to label wild-caught fish (in marine settings). ASC on the other hand, focusses on aquaculture and all farmed seafood. Like the MSC, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) is a non-profit organisation that certifies sustainably farmed seafood, either on land or in the ocean.1 

Learn more about the MSC label here

Why Do We Have ASC?

In 2016, wild-catch fishing stagnated after it reached 171 million tonnes of caught fish across the globe, but demand for fish has continued to grow. Aquaculture has now pushed beyond that stagnated mark to meet consumer demand and has continued to increase.2 With the steep incline of farmed seafood over the past decades, many questions regarding sustainability and employment ethics have arisen.

Recognising that aquaculture plays a major role as a key supplier of global protein, the ASC organisation aims to encourage producers to reduce any negative environmental and social impacts. So, what is it that makes some seafood ASC certified sustainable, while others are not?

The ASC Standards: What’s Considered? 

ASC standards have been developed based on best practices and science globally. The standards were developed in line with FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) guidelines and follow the ISEAL Alliance Code of Good Practices for Setting Social and Environmental Standards to ensure credibility, inclusiveness, and transparency of the standard setting process.3, 4 While there are more than 150 performance indicators that will decide whether a farm can achieve the ASC certified label, it can all be boiled down to these 2 main requirements:5 

1. Environmental Sustainability 

This requirement looks at how the fish farm combats its potential load on the immediate environment while also being concerned with careful handling of fish health and used resources. Meeting this requirement also means addressing water quality, meeting standards on ingredient sources for feed, as well as minimising impact on wild populations (preventing escapes, since escaping fish can pose a threat toward wild populations). It also implies that the farms should not use unnecessary antibiotics or chemicals deemed so under ASC Standards - the ASC standard for shrimp for example, allows no antibiotic treatment but accepts some level of antibiotics due to residue in water systems.6  

2. Social Responsibility 

Employees of ASC marked farms must be treated responsibly and with care (e.g. the safety of workers and no child labour allowed). Another aspect of social responsibility is that fish farms should be working together with the local community, rather than negatively impacting them and their resources.

A committee takes these 2 main requirements and applies them to 11 marine animal groups:7

1. Abalone
2. Bivalves (clams, mussels, oyster, scallop)
3. Flatfish 
4. Freshwater trout
5. Pangasius
6. Salmon
7. Seabass, seabream and meagre
8. Seriola and cobia
9. Shrimp
10. Tilapia
11. Tropical marine finfish.

Although this list covers the majority of farmed species, some species still remain ineligible to gain ASC certification, as ASC has no current standards for them. The species within these groups were selected due to their degree of impact on the environment and society, their market value, and their international trading value. Accordingly, each farmed species has its own standard with detailed descriptions of how to meet the environmental and social standards for that group.  

Potential Issues With The ASC Label

ASC faces many of the same critiques as other sustainable certification processes. Where it often gets complicated is when certification systems are tailored towards more wealthy countries’ comprehensive food safety standards, overlooking many other lower-income regions might struggle to uphold those standards.

Inclusive For Some Farmed Fisheries, While Exclusive For Others

The ASC label has long been tailored toward the most powerful actors even though the ASC welcomes input from the public via forums and online reviewing.8 Problems like language and accessibility of information can hinder the opportunity to apply for the label. Even though smallholders may be able to access and understand the information, it is still a complicated process to comply with standards of food safety and traceability.8 Creating standards that are more geographically customized might at least open the doors for feedback and input from other regions. 

As a fish farmer, having an ASC sticker on your seafood product is costly. Although the ASC receives no payment during the application process, income is still necessary for ASC to function as an organisation. To ensure the ongoing function of ASC, the organisation takes a percentage of certificate holders’ sales as a source of income. This can create a dilemma between large-scale producers who typically have greater control over the market, and small producers who often struggle to enter into the market.8,9 Trying to combat this imbalance, the ASC has established a new opportunity to receive group certificates specifically for small-scale farmers.10 

So, Is It Necessary To Have An ASC Label?

The ASC certification is not perfect, but it does push farmers to take a more sustainable course of action. Their contribution toward a more sustainable product is constantly moving forwards trying to encourage feedback from scientists, NGOs, industrial sector, and even the public. Constant reviewing, revision, and reassessments occur on a regular basis for both fish farms and the ASC standards. 

The labelling is a win-win process for consumers and certified farmers. It makes it more convenient for us to choose sustainably farmed seafood, while farmers get rewarded for their sustainable practices through promotion and gained attention.

Do you keep an eye out for ASC certification labels on your seafood? Let us know in the comments below!

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