Last week, the National Organic Standards Board once again took up recommendations for the USDA certification of organic seafood. It's been a three-year, upstream swim for board members, and has generated its share of controversy. The bones of contention have revolved around two main issues: fish feed and net pens.
You have to admit that, as land dwellers, we're better adapted to wrangling cattle, herding sheep and housing poultry. No problem at all with that. “Farming” fish, however, isn't as simple. It's not just a matter of building a barn or fencing in some pasture. When we bipeds get involved in aquaculture, it's easy to get in over our heads.
On land, we've been able to more or less tame food animals over the years, and have gotten them to adjust their diets, but not so fish. For example, salmon — a supermarket seafood case best-seller — gets its nourishment from other fish. We just can't change that fact, at least not yet. So, where do we get these feed fish, and how can the USDA certify these small fry in order to guarantee Certified Organic salmon? Right now, the agency is without an answer — so the NOSB has proposed using wild-caught feed fish as meal, provided they come from areas where the population is monitored by industry and environmental groups for density, health and availability. These so-called “sustainable fisheries” are a good place to start, but it's a short-term solution, since technically, wild-caught fish is ineligible for organic certification.
Then there's the farming mechanism under consideration, called net pens. These floating containment colonies, located offshore, corral the finfish while allowing water to move naturally through the stock. Critics of these systems charge that no pen is 100% secure, since wild fish, pollutants and harmful pests such as sea lice can get in and cause trouble. The NOSB proposal specifies steps aquaculture companies must take before they are allowed to seek certification, including site approval, a nutrient management plan and a blueprint to eliminate waste contamination.
If you think about it, there are just as many potential pitfalls involving terrestrial animals. There's pollen drift, allowing non-organic greens to grow within an organic pasture; there's also water contamination, varmints and illnesses to contend with in the field, just like those facing fish in the sea.
The point is that the organic certification controls we place on land might be more measurable and manageable, but they, too, are not foolproof. The good thing about us humans is that we're capable of change, and I am certain that between the standards board, the USDA and the vocal supporters of organic integrity, we'll keep working on challenges and issues as they arise.
But after three years, let's get started. There are consumers out there waiting to walk up to their supermarket seafood case and say, “A pound of salmon, please. The USDA Certified Organic.”