The Aquaculture Stewardship Council responds to recent articles in The Australian following the release of the WWF’s report on Eco-Labelling
As a science led, not-for-profit organisation, we always welcome questions and requests for information about the ASC programme and the improvement of responsible and sustainable practices in Aquaculture.
The WWF report raises many important questions about sustainable salmon farming in Tasmania, many of which are already known to us and have prompted developments in our standards in the recent years.
We are putting out this information to help inform the discussion currently taking place in Tasmania and to clarify some misconceptions.
Please use this link to see the ASC response to the WWF report.
“At ASC we have long called for greater collaboration in the aquaculture sector and have tried to lead by example in this regard, involving NGOs, scientists, industry experts and the public in both the development of our standards and certification requirements, but also when farms are seeking certification stakeholders are consulted as part of the audit process. Macquarie Harbour is a unique environment with a combination of challenges not seen in other salmon farming locations. But it can also be an example of why it’s so important for all responsible stakeholders, including farms, government and NGOs, to work together to ensure lessons learnt can be incorporated into future best practices.”
- As WWF’s commissioned review noted, ASC certification process functioned properly at Macquarie Harbour: when audits indicated that farms were no longer meeting ASC’s requirements, the farms lost their certification (see below for more detail). Currently no farms in Macquarie Harbour are certified to the ASC standard.
- Both ASC and the independent certification companies who are applying ASC standards on farms acted on new information, data and insights from Macquarie Harbour as it became available, and as a result the certificates were withdrawn from sites in the area by the certification company
- The implication that $250,000 received by ASC from Tassal was in exchange for certification is incorrect. ASC receives no money for the certification process of farms and it is not possible for a farm to ‘buy’ certification from ASC. Independently qualified and accredited certification companies and its auditors undertake farm audits. Their performance is being checked and monitored. When a farm is seeking ASC certification, it is required that all audit reports of the certification company are to be published and scrutinised by stakeholders. Stakeholder input is sought as part of the farm certification.
- The ASC generates revenues via the use of the ASC logo on products. ASC receives a royalty that brands and retailers pay if they use the ASC logo on their labelled products. Logo use is voluntary.
- Audits against the ASC standards and requirements can only be carried out by independent, internationally accredited certification companies, and their audit reports must be published online. This prevents conflicts of interest.
- ASC is constantly updating and improving its standards, and many of the issues raised in the recent WWF report are already reflected in upcoming improvements to the ASC standards that will be published for public consultation next year.
- ASC is a not-for-profit NGO, it is not an industry body and does not represent all salmon farms. We are an evidence-based organisation so will only ever comment about farms that have been certified against ASC’s stringent requirements. We do not ‘represent’ only the industry: our board is made up of representatives from NGOs, retailers, academia, and producers.
Loss of Certificates at Macquarie Harbour
There are currently 11 farm sites operating in Macquarie Harbour, and none of these currently are certified to the ASC standard; although some are certified by other certification programmes.
Five sites in Macquarie Harbour had previously achieved certification against the ASC salmon standard. Farm certificates were lost in August and December 2018 as the companies (Tassal and Petuna) were unable to take sufficient action in time to meet the ASC standards and requirements related to benthic impacts and Dissolved Oxygen (DO) levels.
These sites were independently audited by SCS Global, an internationally accredited third-party certification company. At the time of their audits these sites were found to meet the requirements of the ASC standards.
Once certified, farms also require annual surveillance audits. These later audits picked up declining performance in terms of water quality at the certified sites in Macquarie Harbour. This resulted in minor non-conformities, which require time-bound improvements to be made in order to maintain certification. When these improvements were not made the auditors required the companies to address the issues within a three-month period – a requirement termed a major non-conformity. With the improvements not able to be made in the three-month period, all sites in Macquarie Harbour lost their certificates.
Macquarie Harbour has very specific ecological characteristics, and has been studied from different angles, by different entities over the course of many years. Longitudinal data has shown that the Dissolved Oxygen levels in the harbour fluctuate regularly. While some variation is expected, recent readings have been fluctuating in unexpected and, as of yet, not completely understood ways. In response, all three salmon farming companies in Tasmania have supported an increased research effort in Macquarie Harbour to better understand recent trends. This research includes reviews by the Cawthron Institute and ongoing studies by the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS).
It’s clear that many factors have contributed to the water quality and benthic conditions in Macquarie Harbour and fish farming may have played a role in these changes or may have exacerbated the impacts of naturally driven change.
About the ASC
- The ASC develops and sets standards for best practice in responsible aquaculture using the latest available science. Our standards have been developed by diverse groups of NGOs, scientists, and industry experts, originally involving over 2,000 individual stakeholders and organisations.
- Farms are certified by third-party independent accredited certification companies using a series of ASC standards and requirements.
- The ASC is an independent NGO registered in both the UK and the Netherlands. The ASC is not an industry body, nor does it receive money directly from farms through the certification process as has been alleged in recent articles.
- The majority of the ASC’s income comes from a royalty that seafood brands and retailers pay to the ASC if the ASC logo is used on certified products. Logo use is voluntary. Not all certified farms use the logo.
- Most logo users are seafood-based product companies that source responsibly farmed seafood and want to support responsible practices.
Mitigating Conflicts of Interest
The transparency, independent accreditation and other checks and balances that are a feature of the ASC certification process, prevent Conflicts of Interest and ensure the only route to achieving certification is by meeting every one of ASC’s standards and requirements.
Managing and mitigating the risks when conflicts of interest arise are a feature of all robust audit processes and ASC goes to great lengths to do this with fully independent and accredited certification companies, complete transparency throughout the process, and local community and stakeholder involvement in each farm assessment:
- Auditors are employed by independent certification companies that in turn are accredited by an independent, international body, Assurance Services International (ASI). This is widely considered to be the most robust system for certification. The independent accreditation and the required international (ISO) and ASC delivered training of the assessment teams ensures professional, competent auditors properly apply the ASC standards.
- Farms must choose a certification company that has been accredited by ASI to carry out ASC audits. These companies are paid by the farms for the audit work, regardless of the outcome – the ASC receives no money from the audit and certification process. Further, undertaking an audit does not guarantee certification and the status of the audit (a pass or a fail) are recorded transparently on the ASC website.
- Audits can be witnessed by their international accreditor (ASI) or by ASC, and certification companies can lose (and have lost) their accreditation if they do not meet the high standards and requirements expected of them.
- All certification decisions are subject to public consultation and reports are publicly available on the ASC website, providing further scrutiny of the decisions and findings of auditors – who receive extensive training in identifying and avoiding conflicts of interest.
How the ASC Certification Process Works
- ASC develops and manages standards but operates a third party certification system – this means ASC remains independent of the certification process to avoid conflicts of interest. This is widely regarded as the most robust system for certification to ensure impartiality.
- If a farm wishes to apply for certification, it can choose an auditing company – but only from a list that have been accredited to audit against the ASC standard. https://www.asi-assurance.org/s/find-a-cab
- The farm pays the certification company for the audit process, which is a detailed multiple day process involving on-site assessments, measurements, record checking and staff interviews carried out by trained auditors who specialise in environmental and social issues. This money is paid regardless of audit outcome and is not a payment for certification.
- The auditors’ report is published in full and stakeholders such as those from local communities are invited to provide feedback – this public consultation happens for every certification, and anyone can leave feedback.
- The final decision is not taken by ASC or by the auditors, but by an independent panel within the CAB.
- If the farm is successful its certification is valid for three years, but it must undergo further audits every year to maintain it. Unannounced audits can take place at any time.
- The above process can be witnessed by the international accreditor for audit bodies, ASI, or by members of the ASC’s programme assurance team. If a CAB is found to not be meeting the high standards required it can lose its accreditation. When this happens, details are published on the ASC website.
- Everyone involved must undergo training in identifying and avoiding conflicts of interest.
- All audit reports are published on the ASC website meaning it is not possible for CABs to certify a farm unless it has met ASC’s strict requirements.
ASC in Australia
- The certification companies certify individual farms, not entire companies or producers. If some farms are ASC certified it does not mean other farms operated by the same producer are necessarily responsible.
- There are currently eight ASC certified salmon farms in Tasmania (none of them are in Macquarie Harbour).
- Tassal currently operates 36 salmon farming sites. Currently, eight of these sites are ASC certified (none are located in Macquarie Harbour).
- There are currently 11 salmon farming sites in Macquarie Harbour, none of which are ASC certified; although some are certified by other certification programmes.
ASC Around the World
- ASC operates globally and there are currently around 1,500 certified farm operations in 50 countries. Of these 557 are salmon farms, most of which (267) are located in Norway, and a further 136 in Chile. Currently only eight salmon farming sites are certified in Australia.
- There are hundreds of ASC certified salmon farms around the world demonstrating that farming can be carried out, year after year, in a responsible way. Every single farm faces different challenges depending on its location, but every ASC certified farm must meet ASC’s stringent requirements.
- To transparently inform stakeholders about certified farm performance, the ASC makes available all assessment reports for public scrutiny. This provides accountability, informs future aquaculture research and improvements to the ASC Programme.
- The certification process requires the certification bodies to contact potential stakeholders to provide input to the audit in different stages, this interaction is recorded in the public audit reports.
When using the terms “certification companies”, ASC refers to the Conformity Assessment Bodies (CABs).