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There’s organic ice cream, dog food, and even vodka. But no organic fish—yet.
After years of debate over which seafood should receive USDA organic certification, the National Organic Standards Board has approved draft regulations for fish farmers. Though the move displeased some aquaculturists (i.e., fish farmers) and environmentalists, it could benefit consumers—and the sea. The standards have taken years to develop because it’s so challenging to determine the key elements of environmentally responsible production, says Rebecca Goldburg, the Pew Environment Group’s director of marine science, who helped shape the draft. “Overall it will be a step forward.”
This year the Department of Agriculture plans to finalize the regulations, which could reduce the environmental problems caused by raising fish in ocean pens—the fish may escape and eat or mate with wild fish, and they contaminate the water with their waste. The aquaculture industry, which now yields 45 metric tons of fish annually, has been growing by 8.8 percent a year since 1985, and it is poised to grow faster than any other food-industry sector through 2025.
To receive certification, farmers will have to raise native species and reuse half their farm’s nutrients, like animal waste and uneaten food. In addition, wild fish can make up only a quarter of their feed, which can’t come from small forage fish whose populations have plummeted from overfishing for aquaculture, like anchovies and herring. Such requirements will partly mitigate damages from open-ocean net pens, says Goldburg.
Some environmental groups say the regulations aren’t stringent enough. “The main problems were not addressed,” says Marianne Cufone, fish program director at Food and Water Watch. For instance, consumers expect organic beef to come from a cow that was fed only organically certified feed. But under the draft regulations, a similar standard won’t be required for fish until 2012.
For their part, aquaculturists argue that complying with all the requirements would be incompatible with existing farming systems, and might even prevent the burgeoning industry from attempting organic production.
But an organic label may not be the only option for eco-minded fish farmers. Crop growers have come up with alternative labels, like “biodynamic” and “certified naturally grown,” as part of a national program tailored to small-scale farmers with environmentally friendly practices. In that vein, fish farmers and the World Wildlife Fund are working on an alternate label for sustainably farmed fish that they plan to launch this year. They’re still hammering out the details for certification, but aquaculturists would have to satisfy all criteria, like conserving the natural habitat and protecting wild stocks’ health and genetic integrity.
This spring, with the organic fish standards nearly finalized, the National Organic Standards Board also plans to release regulations for farmed mollusks and bivalves. “There’s no history to organic fish farming, so being more explicit becomes very important,” says Goldburg. “It’s new territory, or rather, new waters.”
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