More and more consumers are paying attention not just to quality, taste and price when they buy food, but also to whether it comes from sustainable sources and was cultivated in an environmentally friendly way. Conservation of resources, prevention of damage to the environment and sustainability have become important criteria for responsible purchasing decisions. Many fish and seafood products are also being measured against these requirements. They are often rejected because, allegedly, they are not cultivated with regard for animal welfare and they damage the ecosystem. To overcome these concerns, aquaculture producers and fish processors can voluntarily have their operations certified according to rigorous standards. Certificates such as these usually have two aims. First, during the certification process the production culture of the operation with regard to food safety, environmental management, animal welfare, employment and social conditions is raised to a significantly higher level. And second, the company can convincingly demonstrate to its customers with the sustainability certificate that it takes their concerns and fears seriously and is addressing them.
Certificates are therefore also winning sales incentives that expand the customer base and create trust. Visible signs of successful certification are mostly in the form of conspicuous logos or seals on the products that signal to the customer that the relevant item was produced in an ethical and environmentally friendly way. Everyone will be familiar with these colourful markers on fish products in stores. However, not many will know where to start with them and know exactly what standards they represent. Because the variety of seals confuses consumers more than it enlightens them, some retail chains are focusing on just one of the logos in their range. In European countries, the turquoise-coloured logo of the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) is the most popular, while the blue and white Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) seal is less frequently seen. Both certificates claim to represent the world’s leading standard for aquaculture, although their contents and standards are very similar, and in parts even identical. The reasons for preferring one or the other seal have less to do with their qualities in terms of their content than with trade politics decisions.
Essentially, both the ASC and the BAP standard mean the following:
•Compliance with all applicable national laws and local regulations
•Conservation of the natural environment, local biodiversity and the ecosystem
•Protection of the health and genetic integrity of wild populations
•More efficient and responsible use of resources
•Environmentally responsible treatment of diseases and parasites
•Development and operation of aquaculture companies in a socially responsible way
•Aquaculture should be a good neighbour and a conscientious member of society
The added value of the certificates is customer trust
Interest in the certificates is growing. In 2019 alone, the number of companies certified by BAP rose by 15%. At the end of the year, almost 2,700 hatcheries, aquaculture farms, feed manufacturers and processing operations in 36 countries worldwide were certified according to BAP standards. This means that over 300,000 employees are working under conditions qualifying as humane treatment, with fair pay. The Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA), an international non-profit organisation that describes itself as the “voice and representative of the aquaculture industry” is behind the GAP standard. With its GAP programme, the GAA is attempting to drive forward the development of responsible and sustainable aquaculture production that is oriented towards the needs of local communities and at the same time produces healthy and safe food. The BAP standards were developed by expert committees, where representatives from science, the aquaculture industry and interested environmental organisations worked together. The idea for the certification standards dates back some 20 years and it was first targeted at shrimp aquaculture, which was increasingly criticised at the time due to the environmental problems associated with it. The BAP programme has continually expanded since then and today science-based certification standards are available for all sectors of aquaculture, from fish to crustaceans to molluscs. The GAA offers certificates for fish, crustacean and mollusc farming, hatcheries, nurseries, feed mills and slaughtering, packaging and processing operations.
Because the certifications offered cover entire aquaculture production chains and take into account many aspects of environmental protection and animal welfare, social responsibility and food safety, they are described by the GAA as “responsible, comprehensive and trustworthy”. This message is understood and recognised worldwide, since the BAP seal can already be found around the globe in more than 150 well-known retail and food service companies. It has its critics too, of course, primarily environmental and animal welfare organisations for which individual standards do not go far enough or are too lax. An example of this is a study funded by the Pew Environmental Group and carried out by the University of Victoria. In its response to the criticism contained in the study, however, the GAA claimed that the BAP standards were only evaluated with regard to their possible impacts on the environment, and aspects such as social responsibility, animal welfare and traceability were not considered at all, which completely failed to do justice to the complexity of the standards. It also claimed that some assessments were unfair because the authors of the study used their own idea of what should the sole measure of value for acceptance of the standards be. One example of criticism was that the use of antibiotics is not explicitly prohibited in the BAP standards for salmon (“Standard sets no limit”). However, the standards only allow for the use of antibiotics following a confirmed diagnosis of a disease by a veterinarian, which is completely justified from an animal welfare perspective.
The David Suzuki Foundation and the Living Oceans Society criticised the BAP standards for salmon cultivation operations as being too weak to support a claim of ecological or social responsibility or the sustainable cultivation of salmon. They could be met by most salmon farms without major operational changes. In its response, the GAA emphasised it was not the goal of its programme to set the standard so high that it was only attainable for a few operations in the sector. Rather, it stated that the BAP programme was much more focused on continually improving the salmon industry as a whole through realistic and practical standards.
GAP standards take into account all aspects of aquaculture
The elementary foundations of the BAP standards for aquaculture include preservation of the environment and social responsibility, animal welfare aspects, food safety and traceability. The entire production chain from hatcheries to farms (ongrowing) to feed manufacturers, processing operations and feed mills is certifiable. The scope of the certification programme can be identified by its star rating. This star system shows how many levels of a supply chain are being taken into consideration. It goes from one star (processor) to two stars (processor and farm) to three stars (processor, farm and hatchery) and up to four stars (processor, farm, hatchery and feed mill). Thus, a four-star certification confirms that the entire supply chain meets the BAP standards.
When certifying aquaculture operations, the GAA works closely with national and local supervisory authorities, research institutes and environmental organisations in supporting the GAA standards to find the greatest possible backing and support for the initiatives. As a rule, the sooner all participants are brought on board and the more they are integrated into the project, the more they engage with the certification process. The GAP standards offer very convincing advantages. For example, they contribute to the diversification of the local economy and community life. They support the creation of secure jobs (the BAP standards also contain specific provisions on protecting employment rights), promote the development of local infrastructure and prevent ecological damage to flora, fauna and the environment.
Certification audits are carried out by third parties
The Aquaculture Certification Council is responsible for BAP certifications. As an independent certification body, it employs an international team of accredited auditors. The auditors investigate the conformity of the aquaculture operations and facilities with the BAP standards on site, carry out tests if necessary and inspect operating records. Having the operational audits carried out by independent experts ensures the greatest possible fairness and guarantees that the efforts of the operations to achieve successful certification are appropriately considered and commended.
The following key elements are primarily examined during BAP certification audits:
•Environment of the aquaculture operations
•Sediment and water quality
•Economic use of fish meal and fish oil
•Measures for preventing and controlling escapes
•Use of genetically modified organisms (GMO)
•Interactions between farmed and wild animals
•Storage and disposal of animal losses
•Property rights and compliance with legal provisions
•Relationships and conflicts with local communities
•Occupational safety and employee relationships
•Animal health and wellbeing
•Biosafety and disease management
•Control of residues and pollutants
•Harvesting (fishing dry) and transport methods
•Compliance with operational HAACP concept
The BAP standards are therefore not rigid and set in stone, but are instead regularly monitored, further developed and adjusted to developments using an open and transparent process. The Standards Oversight Committee (SOC), where representatives from all interest groups involved work together (environmental groups, science and industry each make up one third of the committee), is responsible for these updates. Drafts of new standards are made available to the public for comments for 60 days. If necessary and reasonable, these comments are incorporated into the final draft, which must be finally approved by the SOC and GAA Administrative Board.
Improvements and updates to the standards are possible at any time
The BAP certifications are therefore both science-based and flexible, offering both certified companies and consumers a high level of security and reliability. For processing companies, the BAP Seafood Processing Plant Standard has the additional advantage of also complying with the requirements of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI). If they are successfully certified as part of the BAP programme, companies can also achieve GFSI conformity through a single auditing process. BAP certification standards are also recognised by the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative (GSSI). Important stakeholders such as seafood companies, NGOs, experts, institutions and intergovernmental organisations have joined together for this global benchmarking initiative. The GSSI’s Global Benchmark Tool is based on international FAO reference documents. It assesses the credibility of certification systems and, if necessary, initiates further improvements to strengthen trust in these labels, logos and seals. In addition to BAP and ASC, there are already three certification programmes for wild fisheries that have been recognised by the GSSI: the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), Alaska Responsible Fisheries Management (RFM) and Island Responsible Fisheries Management (IRFM) certification programmes.
Just as the auditors assess and evaluate companies during the course of certification, the BAP programme or the standards it contains are assessed by others. For example, the Amsterdam Royal Tropical Institute (KIT), which works on the sustainable development of specialist expertise, training and intercultural cooperation, has investigated how BAP certification actually affects social and labour standards in aquaculture farms and processing operations. It recently confirmed that the certification process has had positive effects on the protection of fundamental rights, the elimination of forced and child labour and human trafficking, and that it increased equality of opportunities. A certificate cannot fix or eliminate all undesirable social phenomena in specific regions of the world, but it contributes to improving occupational safety and the protection of employee health, ensuring fair pay or a minimum wage or raising standards of living, hygiene and nutrition.
Binding sustainability standards have also led to improvements in other areas. A few years ago, for example, the US Soy Sustainability Assurance Protocol (SSAP) was adopted as a standard for soy cultivation for feed mills in the BAP programme. This was a very important step, because soy is increasing in importance as an alternative source of protein in feed mills for aquaculture. However, using soy instead of fish meal is only accepted in many markets if it is sustainably cultivated. With the independent SSAP certificate, which is monitored by third parties, soybean growers in the USA can now prove the sustainability of their operations at a national level. GAP certification is thus making an important contribution towards more sustainable aquaculture in this area, serving to defuse the occasional criticism of the use of soy in aquaculture feeds. However, certification alone is not everything, as certified operations must also continue to comply with the requirements and standards in the long term. In 2016, an article in SeafoodSource magazine reported on evidence of antibiotics in imported prawns, including products from four BAP-certified exporters. In this case, the infringements were detected by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but the GAA also carries out its own controls to check for antibiotic residues in products. BAP-certified processing operations are usually tested every 3–6 months. If a company violates the certification standards, it is contacted immediately and must promptly introduce corrective measures. At the same time, significantly more unannounced tests are carried out on site to verify compliance with the regulations. Any company that does not respond is suspended or loses its certificate.
This means that fish and seafood products with the blue and white seal are a safe and trustworthy choice for consumers. They can be sure that the products come from sustainable aquaculture and that the fish have been cultivated according to the highest standards available.