Cleaning Up The Farmed Fish Industry

Farmed fish may be the only way to keep humanity eating food from the ocean. But done wrong, it can be incredibly harmful. A new standard hopes to rank farmed fish, so you’re only eating the responsibly raised ones.

Cleaning Up The Farmed Fish Industry
Vladislav Gajic/Shutterstock

If you have fantasies that the fish on your plate frolicked in the open seas before being caught by a fisherman, you might be right–but there’s a pretty big chance that you’re not. Aquaculture (AKA fish farming) now accounts for over half of all seafood that we eat, and it’s the fastest growing food production system on the planet. When it’s done poorly, aquaculture can threaten coastal ecosystems. But when it’s done well, the practice can nourish our seafood supply.


It’s not that aquaculture is the perfect alternative to wild-caught fish, but, as Jason Clay, the World Wildlife Fund’s Senior Vice President of Markets explains, “we’re focused on aquaculture to ensure that how we produce seafood from aquaculture is better than the consequences of overfishing.” With such a large portion of the seafood market now dedicated to aquaculture, there’s no choice but to pay attention. And, as Jose Villalon, vice president of aquaculture at WWF explains, WWF came to the conclusion that “there was a lot more opportunity to improve systems in farming as opposed to wildfishing and trawling.”

So in 2009, the WWF and the Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative created the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), a non-profit designed to manage the standards for responsible aquaculture around the world. Think of it like a certified organic program for farmed fish.

WWF and IDH didn’t create the standards themselves; they gathered over 2,200 people–including farmers, retailers, NGOs, and scientists–to develop them. The standards were developed using the same approach that WWF has used to roll out other standards, including FSC certification for pulp and paper and MSC certification for wild caught seafood.

Despite their rigor (the standards have requirements on everything from the feed that’s used to water quality), producers and retailers are all too eager to get involved. “Sustainability is being designed as a pre-competitive issue. Companies like Unilever are wanting all their products to be sustainable, but we’re not finding any kind of similar commitment on the part of governments,” says Clay.

The standards aren’t entirely out of reach for the average fish farm, either. “The aquaculture dialogue process was designed to recognize the better performers in the industry today–what 15 %to 20% of industry is already doing,” says Villalon. “We didn’t want to create a niche type of standard but on the other hand we recognize that to be able to get this right so we can address the real environmental and social impact associated with aquaculture, we had to make it challenging for mainstream production.”

There’s a real market incentive for producers to take this on: the standards can help reduce production cost (i.e. by using a cheaper but more sustainable diet for the fish) while also ensuring that fish command premium prices. The ASC is already seeing plenty of demand; within a month, there may be as many as 11 ASC-certified fish farms.


The first ASC-certified fish–tilapia–will appear on store shelves on August 16. After performing a study of the top 15 species of traded aquaculture species and looking at the 10 with the most value in the marketplace, the WWF decided that it made sense to start with tilapia certification.

Not all of the 15 species will be eligible for certification. Carp, for example, doesn’t make sense to certify: “The cluster of carp is mostly around China and doesn’t reach international trade,” explains Clay.

Next up for certification: pangasius, bivalves, and abalone.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.