August 28, 2013

WWF’s Farmed Salmon Certification Initiative: Positive Steps or Greenwashing?

Arunima Shukla

Arunima Shukla

Research Assistant

Center for a Livable Future

Salmon farm in a fjord, Norway

Salmon farm in a fjord, Norway

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has launched a new campaign relating to salmon aquaculture—but if the organization is partnering with corporations, how successful will it really be? WWF’s partnerships with various corporations to foster sustainable agriculture and aquaculture practices are part of an effort they call “market transformation.” Some feel that partnering with corporations is the best approach to bring about modest (but real) change, while others condemn such initiatives as a form of greenwashing. WWF’s efforts regarding sustainable logging and palm-oil production have been criticized as being ineffective and even harmful. However, partnering with industry leaders rather than opposing them may be a good course of action considering the economic and political power corporations use to oppose strict regulations.

The Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) is a non-governmental organization founded by WWF and Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative, and it aims to create global standards for sustainable aquaculture practices. It is modeled after the Marine Stewardship Council, which issues sustainability certifications for wild fisheries. ASC developed the first global standards for responsible salmon farming in 2012. Several companies have recently pledged to adopt these standards.

The Global Salmon Initiative (GSI) is a sustainability initiative by 15 companies that produce 70 percent of global farmed salmon. GSI recently committed to have 100 percent of their production certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) by 2020.  While it is good sign that industry leaders have actively taken the step towards improving production practices, many argue that salmon aquaculture in open waters is inherently unsustainable and harmful to the environment. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s highly regarded Seafood Watch ranks almost all farmed Atlantic salmon as “avoid,” due to environmental problems, and it mentions a health advisory to restrict consumption due to high levels of PCBs.

Raising salmon in net-pens or cages in open waters has the potential for harmful environmental and public health impacts, even with the best possible production practices by the industry and regulatory standards by governments. Raising fish in crowded conditions causes waste accumulations and disease outbreaks, which not only harm the farmed fish but can also impact the surrounding environment and wild fish stocks. Furthermore, the use of chemicals (e.g., pesticides and anti-fouling agents), antibiotics, and vaccinations is common when conducting this type of aquaculture. Carnivorous fish like salmon require feed comprised of fishmeal and fish oil derived from smaller fish (e.g., anchovies, herring, and mackerel) that can be overfished and often contain pollutants, which bioaccumulate in the farmed fish. There has been a recent positive development in the area of fish feed where researchers (right here in Baltimore!) from the University of Maryland Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology successfully developed a fully vegetarian diet for a carnivorous fish. This development may help the farmed salmon industry rely less on forage fish for feed, but this is only one issue associated with this type of aquaculture.

Critics have accused WWF of greenwashing a form of aquaculture they fundamentally should oppose, but others argue that with rising demand salmon aquaculture is unlikely to go away and environmental groups should engage with the industry. Wild fisheries are for the most part fully- or over-exploited and cannot keep up with rising demand. In fact, the majority of salmon consumed worldwide (60 percent) is already from aquaculture.

Unfortunately, there are no clear answers regarding the best approach to promote sustainable industry practices. Independently fighting for reform or partnering with industries—both have their own pros and cons. What do you think: Is WWF using effective methods to make farmed salmon less harmful, or are they giving a stamp of approval to a damaging industry in exchange for only modest changes?

Photo: D. Love, 2012.


  1. Posted by Hans Edison

    Salmon is the best fish to eat and it was good to know through your blog that so much work is going on in increasing production and in reducing the harmful elements. I think WWF is doing a good job by partnering with Corporations to improve standards of aquaculture. Even if it is modest it is in right direction. With demand increasing these steps are absolutely necessary. Thanks for this valuable information. Please write more blogs about how salmon farming is done step by step.

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