Healthy Oceans. Healthy Communities.

WWF Report on ASC

October 4, 2021

WWF review confirms aquaculture eco-certifications in need of reform

Last month, WWF-Australia released a report that confirms eco-certifications, including the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) and Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP), need urgent reforms if they are to fulfill their purpose to drive sustainability improvements at salmon farming operations. It echoes much of SeaChoice’s own findings and recommendations to ASC over the years as part of Living Oceans’ watchdogging of the eco-certification.

The review focused on Macquarie Harbour, Tasmania, which has become an unfortunate poster child for how a rapid and reckless expansion of salmon farming can result in unmitigated ecosystem degradation. Several of the very salmon farms that contributed to the degradation, including benthic damage and lowering oxygen levels, were eco-certified with ASC’s “responsibly farmed” and BAP’s “best practice” labels.

(Photo credit: Tasmania Fish Farm photographed by Kristina D.C. Hoeppner)

 As a participant in WWF’s review, we share some of our key takeaways from the report: 

  • Certification criteria must go beyond farm compliance with local laws and regulations, as this is not enough to ensure environmental responsibility. This is particularly the case where local regulations are weak and enforcement lacks. 
  • Farm-level certifications currently do not effectively address the cumulative impacts of the industry within a given area or waterbody. 
  • ASC sanctioned loopholes likely contributed to delayed action to address and reverse impacts at certified farms. This includes ASC’s exclusion of intermediary farms from compliance with their standard (meaning a year or more from the production cycle is never assessed for environmental impacts) and ASC’s approval of problematic variances that weakened standard rules. 
  • The BAP certification does not publish audit reports, nor were they made available for the reviewer on request. Local stakeholders are not consulted during the BAP audit process. This lack of transparency and disclosure leaves serious questions as to how auditors managed the adverse impacts at BAP certified sites. 

While the scope of the review was limited to Macquarie Harbour, these findings are consistent with other areas where these certifications are present - including Canada.

Since 2015, the ASC has continually watered down their standard by exempting the industry from stringent criteria and, instead, deferring to DFO regulations. B.C. certified farms defer to DFO’s regime for sea lice (some ASC farms had 20+ lice per fish) and Area-Based Management (despite DFO not having any ABM regulation).  ASC also continues to allow auditors to exclude interim farms (commonly used by the B.C. industry) from compliance with their standard. We even called out Mowi for their misleading claim that all of their farms are ASC certified (they’re not).

Transparency and meaningful stakeholder engagement are vital for any credible certification system. The industry is BAP certified in B.C. and in Atlantic Canada. The audit process to attain BAP is shrouded in secrecy. SeaChoice has called on BAP to publish audit reports that demonstrate a farm’s compliance with their standards and consult with local stakeholders during audits. 

As a co-founder and supporter of the ASC, WWF’s acknowledgement that eco-certifications are in need of reform is significant. If certifications are to fulfill their purpose of driving improvements at the industry level, then these failings need to be urgently remedied - or they risk losing market support. Because eco-certifications should deliver on their promises to shoppers.