Federal Board May Approve Farmed Fish as Organic

Published February 1, 2008

The National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) is considering new standards that would approve the federal government’s official “organic” label for farm-raised fish.

Proponents say the organic label is appropriate for fish raised in offshore, open-net pens and for fish raised on feedstock containing less than 25 percent wild fish. Opponents assert there is no proof open-net pens pose no harm to the environment and that even a small percentage of wild fish food could raise PCB levels in farmed fish.

NOSB is a 15-member board, authorized by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, charged with assisting the secretary in developing standards for substances to be used in organic production. The NOSB also advises the secretary on other aspects of implementing the national organic program.

‘Contamination’ Risks Claimed

Opponents of fish farming assert open-net pens in offshore waters can contaminate the local environment with a build-up of fish waste, parasites, and disease if the pens are put in relatively stagnant areas or are not properly structured. They also protest it is impossible to trace the diet of fish raised in open-net pens, resulting in the possibility the fish have eaten smaller fish that may have been exposed to human pollution.

Opponents also argue open-net pens violate the spirit of organic farming because farmed fish sometimes escape into the wild environment and can thus “contaminate” wild fish stocks.

“Until we have proof that open-net cage fish farms do not harm the ocean environment or the life within it, farmed fish including salmon should not be allowed to carry the coveted USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] organic label,” said Andrea Kavanagh, director of the Pure Salmon Campaign.

“[The] international inventory of escapes shows us that despite progressive policies, there is simply no way to prevent escapes from open-net cages,” added Pure Salmon Campaign representative Rachel Hopkins. “These fugitive fish pose a major threat to the local marine ecosystem.”

Healthy Food Production

Brad Hicks, chairman of the Pacific Oceanic Seafood Association, disagreed. “The use of wild caught sources of fish for organic fish farming systems is feasible, acceptable, and should be encouraged,” Hicks said.

“The use of fish meal and fish oil for rearing fish is an excellent use of these resources,” Hicks continued, “and it is ecologically more prudent to use these resources for rearing fish than many of the other common uses of these materials, such as fuel, fertilizer, industrial raw material, and food for terrestrial livestock. A primary hindrance to the use of fish meal and fish oil in organic fish farming has been political.”

Hicks noted fish meal and fish oil enhance the concentrations of unsaturated long-chain fatty acids in farmed fish, making them healthier for consumption than vegetarian fish.

NOSB is composed of four farmers/growers, two handlers/processors, one retailer, one scientist, three consumer/public interest advocates, three environmentalists, and one certifying agent. The board is expected to render a final decision early this year.

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Environment & Climate News.