March 5, 2013

USDA Organic standards for aquaculture under development

Dave Love

Dave Love

Associate Scientist, Public Health & Sustainable Aquaculture Project

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Will farmed fish qualify?

The prospect of having certified organic aquaculture products was a hot topic at this year’s Aquaculture 2013 conference in Nashville, Tennessee. Farmed aquatic animals are the only type of food not represented in the marketplace with a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic seal—a highly recognizable label—although that may change soon.  The USDA is initiating the process for developing an organic aquaculture standard.

At the conference, Mark Bradley of the USDA Marketing Service presented a roadmap for the development of the organic aquaculture standard, which he thinks will take at least 18 months to finalize.  Aquaculture production involves some facets that have not had to be considered for other organic standards.  While the organic livestock standards are similar, an aquatic environment poses challenges for regulation that are different from a terrestrial environment. For example, animal waste is more mobile in aquatic environments than on land, which could increase environmental pollution from open water fish farms. Another difference between aquaculture and terrestrial livestock is that fish waste does not contain human microbial pathogens, which would introduce different policies for waste treatment and management.  Several areas that will receive special attention in the standard are:

  • the origin of juvenile animals raised in aquaculture;
  • the use of fishmeal and fish oil in aquaculture feed;
  • animal health care and living conditions;
  • open water net pen operations;
  • special consideration for bivalve molluscs; and
  • harvesting, transport, slaughter, and processing of aquaculture products.


The most contentious topics will likely be the use of fishmeal and fish oil as aquaculture feed and whether to allow open water net pen operations, like salmon farms, to gain USDA Organic status. Fishmeal and fish oil come from wild sources or scraps of processed fish, so the pathway for certifying fish as organic that are fed these ingredients is unclear. Net pen farms have been shown to negatively impact the environment in several ways (through fish escapes, disease transfer, waste buildup, and heavy reliance on fish meal and fish oil), which is not consistent with the spirit of the organic standards defined by the USDA.

In addition to USDA agency rulemaking, a separate group of 15 experts who make up the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) will meet over the next several months to decide which chemicals and ingredients will be allowed for organic aquaculture production. We can expect each sector of the aquaculture industry to lobby USDA and NOSB to allow inputs that make the organic aquaculture standard most advantageous for their businesses.

When defining USDA Organic aquaculture, it is critical to consider if farming practices maintain or improve the biodiversity around farms, affect the integrity of the aquatic environment, and recycle nutrients in ways that take advantage of natural processes.  For example, polyculture mimics natural systems by recycling waste between animals (finfish, shrimp, or bivalve mollusks) and plants (algae or vegetables) that are raised together. Perhaps there should be a standardized USDA label for products from these types of systems to highlight the sustainable methods.

The USDA plans to release draft policy documents in the near future, and we are eager to see how they will address the unique aspects of aquaculture.


  1. It should be a differentiation between inland aquaculture, and mariculture; the environmental impacts are different, for example in spite of that both affect the biodiversity, on inland aquaculture is more easy mitigate than in the sea.
    I attend to the first workshop at the University of Minnesota, more than ten years ago, as a representative of the National Chamber of Aquaculture of Ecuador ( organization in which I continue working as Environmental Director; and very few advances I have seen on this matter.

  2. Greats post! I’m curious to learn more about how nearby seaweed cultivation could help mitigate some of the waste created by say, salmon farming.

  3. Aquaponics promises the opportunity to solve a lot of the potential issues with an organic standard for fish. Fish food has been the largest obstacle but recently there has been some organic certified fish food available to help but can this be scaled up to make a dent in the large commercial fish farms?

    There are a lot of groups working on this opportunity.

  4. Posted by Patrick McKee

    I have USDA Certified Fish Food. QCS will issue a Certified Organic (Not USDA Certified) certification. In the beginning of USDA certification there was a certification for aquaculture. The USDA pulled the use of their logo but allows for certifying agencies to certify following the original USDA guidelines with some modifications. Quality Certification Services will certify your fish if you feed them my USDA Certified Organic Fish Food and follow their guidelines. You can contact me Patrick McKee at for more information. The fastest way to get the USDA on board is to get as many people certified as possible so they will be able to see what has been accomplished.

  5. Posted by Kevin foster

    Has anything new about this come up????
    Is there a standard now???
    Our farm has Natureland international certification
    My client needs USDA certification

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