What’s this about organic fish?

What’s this about organic fish

By Tim Marshall

For 25 years certified organic has expanded across almost every food category and even to cosmetics, textiles and ecotourism. Continuing this theme of expansion into new categories, the Australian Certified Organic Standard 2013 (the rule book for anyone certified with Australian Certified Organic) contains a new section on aquaculture (fish farming, in freshwater or in cages in seawater). Fish, shellfish and seaweed are rarely seen with an organic label and are among the most difficult products to produce in compliance with organic certification requirements, whether they are ocean or freshwater products. Tim Marshall examines the current status of organic fish products in Australia and elsewhere across the world, and the potential for organic freshwater and ocean-farmed products.

The importance of wild capture and aquaculture

Whether organic or conventional, fish and related products are likely to evince controversy. Health authorities promote fish for cardiovascular health, especially because of its omega-3 content, yet we know that some wild caught fish, particularly large specimens of species at the top of the food chain, may have unacceptably high levels of heavy metals and other chemical residues. Environmentalists may support aquaculture over wild catch because of its potential to relieve pressure on the oceans of the world, or they may criticise it as a source of pollution from spilt feed, for the introduction of alien species, and for the spread of fish pathogens into aquatic ecosystems.

Australians are eating more fish and other aquatic products than ever before (more than 80,000 tonnes, worth around $2.5 billion, of which approximately $1.2 billion is farmed). In Australia it is easy to forget how important fish protein is for the rest of the world, but anyone who has ever flown into an Asian port at night will have been astonished to see the lights of the many fishing vessels and aquaculture cages and pods below. Global consumption of fish is now more than 150 million tonnes including 60m from aquaculture. Total fisheries production is now more than beef, pork or poultry and aquaculture is becoming much more important and is predicted to soon overtake capture fishing.

Environmental consequences of aquaculture

Aquaculture has the capacity to relieve the severe pressure of production on the world’s oceans, but some environmentalists accuse it of causing environmental problems of its own. Worldwide, finfish and crustacean aquaculture consumes 60–80 per cent of fish meal and 80 per cent of fish oil (products of capture fishing bycatch and processing waste), and is therefore largely dependent upon continuing exploitation of marine resources. As in the wild, farmed shellfish (oysters, mussels, abalone) feed on plankton and/or algae and do not require fish meal in their diets.

Herbivorous and omnivorous finfish generally require little or no fish meal in their diets, whereas high order carnivorous fish require more (up to 35 per cent). As disposable income of societies increases, so does the demand for high value carnivorous fish.

Some food dispensed in aquaculture operations – especially open water cages – is inevitably not consumed and together with faeces the nutrients released into the surrounding water can cause oxygen depletion and potentially lead to algal blooms.

Optimal stocking densities for fish are species and farming-system specific. Where crowding occurs, especially in highly active and naturally migrating species, it causes behaviour problems, leading to increased stress levels and an increase of parasitic infestation and disease outbreaks, which may require aquavet treatment. This sometimes leads to aquaculture being compared to caged chicken farms. Overuse of antibiotics in fish farming (and domestic land animals) is implicated in antimicrobial resistance in humans, although this is probably only a problem in poorly managed and less-regulated systems in the developing world.

Escapees may cause biodiversity conflicts and introduce novel pathogens. Some species are difficult to breed, requiring high use of chemical intervention.

Certifying aquaculture as organic

Organic aquaculture obviously requires primarily organic food sources, but equally must also address and reduce the environmental impacts of aquaculture. Because organic aquaculture standards are still at an early stage of development, some concessions are made to allow the industry to develop. In a major difference between certified organic aquaculture and certified agricultural enterprises, a significant portion of feed from marine sources may come from sustainable fishery byproducts, such as those from Marine Stewardship Council certified fisheries.

Early industry development is in many ways analogous to that of the organic poultry industry, in that conventional fingerlings or spat (mollusc larvae) can be brought in to start the operation, maximum density may be controlled and there is a five per cent allowance for conventional feed to allow high nutrient foods (mainly fish oil) to be used. Like in the poultry industry, there is an active lobby to allow use of synthetic amino acids, although this is strongly opposed by most of the organic movement. Because of the slightly differing requirements in various export markets, potential growers should refer to the Australian Certified Organic Standard 2013 for the specific standard limitations of different destination markets.

Most national standards don’t permit certification of wild harvest. While certain parts of the ocean may still be considered clean, this would only be suitable for endemic (rather than pelagic) species. Also there is a strong argument in the United Kingdom and the United States in particular that organic product must be subject to husbandry, which is active care, rather than just wild harvest. An exception is made for harvest of breeding stock and where replacement animals are not technically possible from organic sources – in this case they must be maintained under organic conditions for at least two-thirds of the production cycle before they are sold as organic.

Because of the limitations of breeding and organic management, wild harvested aquatic organisms from the ocean are sold with Marine Stewardship Council certification rather than an organic label.

Ideally when wild larvae are used, it is by a passive capture system, such as where coastal lagoons are opened for entry of larvae during the spawning season and closed for the remainder of the production cycle.

Hatchery restrictions include limited systems to induce spawning, for example, on the use of natural or synthetic pituitary hormones to induce sex change or hypophysation (seed production) in fish and the amputation of eyestalks in crustaceans. The use of polyploid animals or GMOs is not permitted. Mechanical destratification of the water column is sometimes used.

Organic fish must be segregated from conventional fish. For marine-based operations for bivalves or algae, no nutrients may be added to the system and only nutrients from natural water flow are permitted. For land-based systems, the nutrient load of exit water must be the same as that of the inflowing water source. The aquaculture standards also apply to land-based vegetable systems such as watercress or water chestnuts.

How much organic aquaculture?

Organic aquaculture is not common in Australia but is growing rapidly around the world. Although it has been around for some time, the certification rules are being refined. I attended the second IFOAM Aquaculture Conference in Bangkok 13 years ago and IFOAM produced its first organic aquaculture guidelines in 2000. Certified organic aquaculture is estimated to be over 60,000 tonnes, worth nearly $500 million internationally, and accounts for around half a million hectares but is still only 0.1 per cent of total aquaculture production. Chair of Australian Organic, Dr Andrew Monk, contributed to an IFOAM meeting about aquaculture in 2013. He says while some Scandinavian and European countries have articulated organic standards for aquaculture, the international community is debating some issues such as how much conventional feed to allow given the lack of available certified organic feed and the general impact aquaculture can have on the environment.

The market for organic aquaculture is strongest in Europe, especially France, Germany and the UK, with smaller markets in the United States and Japan. Organic seafood is now sold in discount supermarket chains throughout the EU. Production occurs mainly in Europe, China, Thailand, Vietnam and South America.

Organic seafood products include crustaceans (shrimps and prawns), bivalves (mussels and oysters) and fish (mainly salmon, bass, bream and meagre). Seaweed is also produced –mainly in Asia. Freshwater organic products are mainly fish, especially rainbow trout (Europe), Tilapia (South America), carp and catfish (Asia).

Limitations for organic aquaculture

Significant technical limitations inhibit the more rapid expansion of organic aquaculture, especially access to organic food sources, but also production of larvae, protection from parasites such as sea-lice and removal of competition from unwanted species in open cages.

Organic bivalve shellfish (mussels, clams, oysters) are fed by natural plankton and algae in tidal zones, so this industry is relatively easy in clean oceans, such as those near the south coast of Australia, where there are already certified operators for mussels and oysters. Farmed crustaceans eat a wide range of microorganisms, algae and decomposing organic matter, so they also do well in tidal areas and can receive supplementary feed in the form of waste products from various organic processing operations.

Competition for fish byproduct, fish meal and oil for fish feed is strong, and these systems often require alternative food sources such as insect meal, farmed algae and grain meal.

My company TM Organics has received a number of enquiries regarding certification from seafood capture industries. Unfortunately these did not proceed due to technical and certification problems. Prawn fishers required the use of sulphur as a preservative due to the long time spent at sea and vessels did not have the capacity for on-board freezing. Octopus fishers rely upon export to destination markets that do not allow capture industries to wear an organic label.

What does the future hold for organic fish?

Despite the technical limitations, the organic aquaculture market is expected to continue to grow rapidly. The strongest potential for sea-based operations in Australia is for mussels and oysters due to the ease of feeding in natural systems. The strongest potential for freshwater systems is probably for small-scale one-farm systems growing crustaceans such as yabbies in farm dams, or small-scale tank systems for finfish.

Comment was sought for this article from several sources in the National Aquaculture Council. Opinions varied regarding which industries were best suited, and particularly about the suitability of large-scale farming for organic certification, but all agreed that more small-scale organic aquaculture will be likely for specialist markets in the future. There was general agreement that the Australian aquaculture industry is amongst world leaders in reduction of antimicrobial use, and that there have been significant recent improvements in use of grain-based feed, which will be to the advantage of growers wishing to convert to organic systems in the future.

Wapengo Rocks certified organic oysters

What's this about Organic FishShane Buckley from Wapengo Rocks became the first Australian Organic producer of certified organic Sydney rock oysters in May 2013. He says, “Organic is the way I can see all aquaculture going in the future. We are privileged to farm in a way that respects the estuary and the environment, and when we do simple things, such as reducing our impact on the lake bed allowing the sea grasses to regrow, it is actually good for the oysters and the health of this beautiful estuary. It is not really so hard but it does involve a cultural shift. It is an established industry with certain habits and ways of doing things. Because I am a younger grower, and new to the industry, I have found it easier to adopt organic methods. For me, organic certification is acknowledgement for the work that we have done to produce oysters in the most sustainable way that we can.”

Tim Marshall is a writer, trainer and consultant with 30 years’ experience in the organic industry. His company TM Organics offers a course for organic retail staff, available by face-to-face delivery or online. 

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