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Organic certification for salmon too fishy, say opponents

From March 27 to 29, the National Organic Standards Board Livestock Committee met in Washington, D.C., to discuss the establishment of organic standards for aquatic species. The committee recommended that organic certification be offered to noncarnivorous fish in closed systems, such as tilapia and catfish. However, the Livestock Committee did not recommend certification for carnivorous species raised in open-water net pens. Instead, they suggested excluding such species for six months to gather more input from industry and consumers.

Amongst carnivorous fish, salmon is the primary species in question. Though consumers can sometimes find products labeled "organic salmon" in grocery stores, these products are certified by non-U.S. certifiers; there is currently no definition of "organic" for seafood under U.S. organic regulations.

The National Fisheries Institute, which lobbies for businesses in the U.S. seafood industry, supports certification for salmon, but a wide-ranging coalition of environmental and health organizations, as well as many chefs and retailers, fear that certifying salmon would violate many of the key principles of organic production.

"The organic label is the premium label," said Andrea Kavanagh, director of the Pure Salmon Campaign, based in Washington, D.C. "We believe that carnivorous fish should receive an eco label for those who follow good practices, but the organic label isn't right."

Kavanagh listed a number of specific issues with certification for open-ocean net-pen aquaculture, including pollution caused by salmon waste, transmission of disease from farmed to wild fish, farmed fish escapes that would dilute the genetics of wild stock, and the use of wild fish for feed.

"Wild Alaskan salmon, a very well-managed fishery, was denied organic certification because with wild fish you can't control the inputs—you don't know what it's been eating or where it's been," Kavanagh said, 'so I don't understand why it would be OK to take wild fish and feed them to farmed fish. That's why our group came out in favor of [organic certification only for] fish in closed systems and lower on the food chain."

Kavanagh's group is hoping to collect consumer feedback on the issue through its Web site,

Speaking to the NOSB, Neil Simms, president of Kona Blue Water Farms, argued in favor of organic certification for net pen aquaculture. "Why not establish organic standards, and provide an increased level of consumer confidence in seafood?" Simms said.

But for opponents, health benefits and consumer confidence are not the primary issues. "In the push for the United States to certify farmed seafood as organic, the integrity of the entire 'organic' label is at stake," a coalition of 19 chefs wrote in an open letter delivered to the NOSB as part of the public record. "We are writing to ask you to ensure that you do not weaken our USDA organic standards."

Organic standards for seafood: Where should the line be drawn? Click here to discuss...

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