ASC on a ‘mission’ impossible to brand farmed salmon as “responsible”

GAAIA’s crusade against industrial aquaculture kick-started this morning here at the Seafood Summit in Vancouver.  

The Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) is on a ‘mission’ (according to it’s glossy new brochure with farmed salmon slithering all over the front and back cover) “to transform aquaculture towards environmental and social sustainability”.

Common sense would surely dictate that any move “towards environmental and social sustainability” meant running as fast and as far away from salmon farming as possible.  However, in view of the way the ASC (crammed full of former Marine Harvest staff) is warmly embracing salmon farming, it sadly seems that common sense is not a currency the ASC is going to deal in.  Big Aquaculture like Big Tobacco is used to making big mistakes. 
 
The ASC’s CEO, Dr Philip Smith (a former Director of Marine Harvest/Nutreco), said that the ASC will launch a consumer label “by the middle of this year to encourage the purchasing of responsibly farmed seafood” with farmed salmon and farmed shrimp in the vanguard.  “We’ve already embarked on the journey to train auditors,” said Dr. Smith who is based in the Netherlands (close to his former employees Nutreco who are coincidently one of the biggest supporters of the ASC). 

“It is a continuing process which we’ve embarked on.  It is a journey we’ve just started and we’ve a tremendous amount of learning to do as we embark on our way forward.  We’d like to align with MSC chain of custody where we can.  I would be looking to outsource the entire certification process to those who already have experience in certifying MSC.   So there is a tremendous amount of work still to do.  We’re not done yet”.

Fears that the ASC will inevitably become a factory farmed version of the already tainted MSC – the spawn of the devil – were compounded by statements made at this morning’s breakfast meeting.  Peter Hajipieris from Birds Eye Igloo (and former fish buyer with Tesco) said: “The way to view the MSC/ASC relationship is as complimentary not competing with each other”.  According to Chris Ninnes of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC): “There are some distinctions but we recognize that there is a continuum between fishing and farming systems.” 

 
So the ASC looks set to run into the same stormy waters as the MSC.  And those stormy waters are rushing in faster than a FDA-approved genetically engineered ‘super’ salmon.  Jose Villalon of WWF (a former employee of Marine Harvest) said: “Farmed salmon standards will be completed at the end of July this year with a guidance document published in December”. 
 
Hank Cauley of Pew Environment Group who is on the board of the ASC (and was responsible for the Forest Stewardship Council giving a green stamp to irresponsible logging) said: “The ASC is a Dutch NGO, a Dutch foundation.   We’re not a membership organization.”  If the ASC was a membership organization it would be out of reach to most people – Pew paid a rumoured $50,000 just for a seat on the board of the ASC.  How much Marine Harvest, Nutreco and other salmon farming giants are paying to grease the wheels of the ASC is unclear.

"Sustainability" and "sustainable seafood" clearly is the Holy Grail for the ASC.  Ted van der Put of IDH (the Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative) who is on the supervisory board of the ASC said: “We want sound sustainability and sustainable sourcing”.  

But there is a considerable challenge out there.  Carson Roper (Seafood Liaison Officer with the ASC – and formerly with WWF) admitted: “One of the ASC’s outreach objectives is to reduce confusion surrounding certification schemes.”

 
Jay Ritchlin of the David Suzuki Foundation (and on the steering committee of WWF's 'Salmon Aquaculture Dialogue' which will feed into the ASC's certification scheme) said: “Where this discussion is going is showing that the word ‘responsible’ is no better than the word ‘sustainable’.  I think ‘environmentally and socially preferable’ is a better description”. 
 
In today’s Globe & Mail newspaper in the article “Environmentalists skeptical of Loblaw's boost for salmon farming” Jay Ritchlin said: “It’s sort of the image of sustainability without the reality”. 

 
Helene York of Bon Appetit Management Company asked why retailers would choose the ASC over the GAA (Global Aquaculture Alliance).  Carson Roper of ASC ducked publicly criticizing the GAA but implied that the ASC was more ‘credible’: “The ASC is multi-stakeholder, open and transparent - and the credibility of the process is derived from that,” he said.  “People are looking for credibility.”
 
Wow – incredible!  Saying the ASC is more credible than the GAA is like proudly claiming Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, George Bush, Tony Blair, Tiger Woods or even farmed salmon has a better international reputation than Hitler. 
 
Dr. Philip Smith, CEO of the ASC, ended the breakfast meeting with a plea for patience:  “The ASC is on a journey here – a long journey,” he said.  “It’s extremely important to understand how much financial and human resources that are needed to put in in order to drive change.  It does take time.  Unrealistic timelines will create problems for managing expectations.”
 
Thanks to the muddled mess that is the MSC, expectation levels for the ASC are indeed low – on a par perhaps with the poor international reputation of farmed salmon.  In some respects, the ASC and the salmon farming industry deserve each other.   Nevertheless the ASC is making a monumental mistake by promoting farmed salmon as “responsible” and making farmed salmon the poster-child of “responsible aquaculture”.   The battle lines have been drawn and it will be interesting to track the progress of the ASC’s stomach-churning embrace with farmed salmon. 

 
Jose Villalon of WWF (who receive money from Marine Harvest via WWF’s Norway office) was also at pains to stress: “Sustainability is a journey and we’re all on the march together – the word ‘sustainability’ implies you’ve already reached your destination.  Hence the ASC is staying away from the word sustainability and focussing on responsible.  Please appreciate that the ASC is a work in progress”.   
 
The ASC’s evangelical campaign to convert sceptics and blasphemers into believing that salmon farming and shrimp farming is “responsible” has taken on a mission impossible.  The rumour is that leading Scientologist Tom Cruise is being lined up as a spokesperson for the ASC’s ongoing mission.