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Can A Fish Farm Be Organic? That's Up For Debate

Employees at Pan Fish USA, a salmon fish farm, unload fish feed on Bainbridge Island, Wash.
Ron Wurzer
Getty Images
Employees at Pan Fish USA, a salmon fish farm, unload fish feed on Bainbridge Island, Wash.

This year, Americans are expected to buy more than $30 billion worth of organic grains, produce, coffee, wine and meats.

Some producers of farmed fish want the chance to get a cut of those profits, and retailers, who can charge a premium price for organic farmed fish, are with them. But an organic label for aquaculture is not coming easy.

For more than 10 years, the issue has been on the agenda of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program. But a planned meeting to discuss the matter in October was canceled by the federal government shutdown. Now federal officials are saying the final determination on the issue is at least six months away.

Among the groups closely eyeing the proceedings are environmentalists, who say fish farms shouldn't quality for an organic label if they rely heavily on feed that can't be verified as organic. And they cite other problems on fish farms, including pollution and disease, that make them less sustainable than the typical organic farm.

"The problem is, organic rules are based on how you treat the soil. So how do you apply that to things like seafood?" says Patty Lovera, with Food and Water Watch.

To solve the problem of fitting fish farms into the same policy as land-based farms, federal regulators are simply rewriting the rules. The NOP — with help from the National Organic Standards Board, or NOSB, and its own Aquaculture Working Group — is now developing a set of guidelines that specifically address aquaculture. They would allow up to 25 percent conventionally grown material — specifically fishmeal — in the diets of farmed fish certified as organic. The plan would be to slowly scale this amount down over the years, though critics say they doubt this process would occur.

But this seems like too much to some consumer advocates.

"They're totally compromising the current United States standards [on organic certification]," says Urvashi Rangan, with the watchdog group Consumers Union.

Farmed salmon are typically fed fishmeal, a ground-up paste of anchovies, menhaden and other wild-caught species, some of which come from stocks that are rapidly declining. Under existing organic laws in the U.S., there is no way to certify these wild fish as organic.

To solve this, the federal government is proposing to allow fish farms to use meal only from "sustainable" fish species.

So what exactly does that mean? Miles McEvoy, the deputy administrator of the National Organic Program, tells The Salt that for now, the term "sustainable" remians undefined and unregulated.

The fishmeal question is likely to continue to be contentious for open-ocean fish farms. But inland fish farms could potentially be in a better position to abide by organic laws, says Zeke Grader, of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations in San Francisco. "I think it's possible for there to be organically farmed fish, but they would have to be raised in completely closed, recirculating systems that don't touch the ocean," Grader says.

That's because some salmon farms with open-ocean pens have been infested with a marine parasite called sea lice, which scientists say has devastated certain wild salmon populations in British Columbia. (Representatives of Canada's salmon farming industry have disputed this claim.)

George Lockwood, chairman of the NOP Aquaculture Working Group, says the sea lice issue "is an unsubstantiated claim" against salmon farming.

Still, Lockwood says his group has recommended to federal regulators that organic salmon farms be required to undergo rigid environmental assessment to earn the USDA organic stamp — a more rigid assessment, he says, than the current standards for organic land-based livestock farms. Lockwood also points out that the European Union is already certifying some farmed salmon from countries like Ireland as organic.

Rangan at Consumers Union sees these moves as watering down the principles of organic agriculture.

"The NOP wants to grow the organic sector, and to do that they're just lowering the standards rather than require that producers meet them."

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Alastair Bland