Aquaculture has quickly grown from a minor, niche industry into an industrialized and modern one, and sustainability is at the center of many innovations on how to make this arena a long-term and thriving success. Output for food production from aquaculture has surpassed that of wild capture fisheries and today, more than 50 percent of seafood imported into the US is farm-raised. When you couple that with the fact that 90 percent of our seafood is imported from all corners of the world, you begin to realize the enormous role that aquaculture plays in feeding the world.
The importance of a diet rich in omega fatty-3 acids is now widely known, contributing to major health benefits such as heart health and neurological development. And while seafood consumption remains stagnant in this country, around the world the middle class grows by the tens of millions every year and along with it, a healthy appetite for seafood. Once luxury items enjoyed by the affluent, aquaculture has brought items such as salmon and shrimp to the masses by reducing costs and creating a consistent, year-round supply.
Americans consume shrimp - the most popular seafood item in the US - on the order of 3.6 lbs per year per capita, which is almost a full pound over the next runner-up, salmon. The enormous popularity of this crustacean has in part been led by the affordable prices and year-round supply brought about through the development of a shrimp farming industry first started in Latin America and now widespread in SE Asia and India. Once the dominant species, black tiger shrimp has largely been replaced by the faster growing, heartier vannamei species, popularly known as white-leg shrimp. In the past 10 years, the traditional method of shrimp farming, which involved stocking large ponds with low densities of shrimp post-larvae (baby shrimp) that rely on the natural productivity of the water body for feed, has been replaced with smaller, more densely stocked ponds which must be supplemented with feed and aeration to maintain high oxygen levels. Unlike the traditional method, this modern, intensive approach allows for control of the various variables that impact the growth and health of shrimp and in addition allows for higher yields while using less resources resulting in greater efficiency on the farms.
In the past decade, internationally recognized standards regulating different facets of the farming practice, from food safety to social accountability to environmental sustainability, have gained a foothold in the shrimp aquaculture industry. As more consumers become aware of the impacts that shrimp farming can have in developing countries, retailers answered their calls by implementing ethical sourcing mandates that require third-party verification, such as the Global Aquaculture Alliance’s Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) certification. BAP certification ensures responsible farming practices, fair labor practices, and covers the processing plant, farm, hatchery and feedmill, resulting in a tiered scale ranging from 1–4 stars.
Large, corporate farms have been early adopters of BAP certification, recognizing the value both now and in the future of the eco-certificate, which many smaller farms haven’t yet been able to. Both the technical and capital requirements of the standard have unfortunately had the unintended effect of excluding small family farms, which make up the bulk of the industry, from improving culture practices on their farms to meet the farm standards.
As a result, certification schemes have reached only a fraction of the industry and have had the unintended consequence of marginalizing the very farmers the standards were developed to help. If the major base of the shrimp farming industry (estimated at 80 percent small farms) can’t meet the requirements of an eco-certificate, then we haven’t made a difference in improving the current state of shrimp farming. That’s not a position we are willing to accept.
The schism between certification of large versus small farms has been visible for some time and the GAA sought to remedy this by creating a new method of grouping multiple farms together for certification. The ‘group’ program was developed to allow 10-30 independent farms, with focus on smallholders, who practice similar culture methods and are located in the same geographical area, to write an internal management system and designate management staff in order to be certified as one entity, allowing all the farms to enjoy the benefits of certification at a much reduced price versus individual farm certification. Significant cost savings are realized through reduced auditing fees. The group program relies on yearly internal audits to identify and fix any non-conformities prior to an external audit performed yearly on a subsample of farms in the group. The costs are then shared amongst all farms in the group, resulting in lower fees per farm than individual farm certification. This model will provide a viable, economical path to certification for family farms without the capital to go it alone.
National Fish and Seafood is the first company to pilot the new group program in conjunction with the GAA and the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP). Since August, we have launched 5 pilots in 4 countries: Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and India. Our experience in creating, training and certifying these groups will provide essential feedback to the BAP on how the model is working in the real world so that fine-tuning or changes can be made before it is brought to market.
We have led training seminars, alongside BAP coordinators, in Vietnam, Thailand and India to cover the requirements of the farm and group standard with select management and farmers alike, instruct on the principals of conducting internal audits, and implement a new traceability software that will allow the group managers and ourselves to monitor all farming activities and inputs in real time to detect any non-conformities that could jeopardize the groups’ certification standing and provide comprehensive records on the product itself that can be shared with our customers. This first-ever attempt to provide 100 percent traceability and transparency is cloud-based and can be accessed on any smart device allowing for farms in rural areas to upload records that can be accessed instantaneously from anywhere in the world. We see this as the future of seafood.
Our steadfast belief in the potential of aquaculture to satisfy this country’s demand for healthy seafood is what got us started on this road to sustainability. Farm-raised shrimp imported from SE Asia, India, and South America is safe, healthy, and affordable for all Americans to enjoy. We believe it is also our responsibility to ensure the products we are importing and providing to our customers were raised in an environmentally sustainable and socially responsible manner that would meet our own expectations. It’s important that we make sure that in the process of providing tens of thousands of jobs through the shrimp farming industry, we don’t accidentally negatively impact the environment. Aquaculture can be practiced in a sustainable manner without polluting the natural water bodies that surround them, causing destruction to sensitive ecosystems, or farming communities through the use of illegal or forced labor. For aquaculture to realize its full potential, it needs continued support from those who believe in responsible practices that benefit producers and consumers alike.
National Fish has been in the business of fostering responsible shrimp farming for the last 10 years. We have led hundreds of hours of training seminars in the major shrimp producing nations and have certified plants and farms which produce hundreds of thousands of pounds of product every year. Since our earliest efforts at increasing the supply of responsibly produced shrimp, the demand for these products has continued to grow, further marginalizing those without certified responsible aqua farms.
Our current focus on improving smallholder farms has led to our collaboration with the GAA and the SFP to implement the newly created BAP Group Standard while developing Aquaculture Improvement Projects (AIPs) to determine the carrying capacity of shrimp-farming regions and hold roundtable discussions with local stakeholders to develop community-supported shrimp-farming development plans that will result in a healthy, sustainable industry while providing local jobs. With the success of the first pilots, we will have a roadmap to continue partnering with local processors, farmers and government agencies to continue expanding our network of sustainable shrimp farming clusters, ensuring jobs and environmental integrity for generations to come. We hope this model will serve to usher in a new era of safe and sustainable shrimp farming reaching all corners of the globe.