Organic Farmed Salmon?

We expect the organic label to mean the food we’re buying is produced in a way that is better for the environment and our health. Unfortunately this is not the case with Canada’s Organic Aquaculture Standard which will organically certify fish farming practices that are already harming our oceans. The standards cover seaweed, shellfish, and closed containment, but most worrying is that net-cages growing salmon (or any other carnivorous fish) could be granted organic certification with no substantive changes to current practices.

Driven by the perceived need for markets based certifications for the aquaculture industry, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) initiated the organic aquaculture process in 2008 behind closed doors with members of the salmon farming industry.

Industry dominated standards committee

Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) took over coordinating the development of the standard in 2010 with DFO continuing to fund and sponsor the process. The restrictive voting membership of the standards committee was heavily skewed toward government and industry, including a number of the largest salmon aquaculture companies and their associations.

Out of the 36 voting memberships, only two conservation non-profits and five organic terrestrial member groups sat on this inclusive membership.

Resulting standard allows net-cages, chemicals, and wild fish as feed

The CGSB released two drafts of the proposed standards for public comment. The first comment period was during the summer of 2010. Over 40 groups from the US and Canada sent in a joint letter and issued a media release objecting to organic standards that allow net-cages, chemicals, and the use of much more wild fish as feed than farmed fish produced.

Standard fails basic organic principles

The second comment period was held in the spring of 2011 and 61 groups from the US and Canada sent in a second joint letter to the CGSB asking that they overhaul yet another weak draft and develop organic aquaculture standards that are in line with basic organic principles. (Read the media release.)

To date more than 2,000 concerned citizens have also signed a petition calling on the CGSB to adhere to the same set of principles as standards for other organically certified food products.

Even with the large number of outraged fishers, scientists, retailers, organic producers of livestock, dairy and produce, conservation organisations and thousands of citizens, the majority of their concerns were disregarded and net-pens remained in the standard.

Conservation and Organic Organizations vote “No”

The Living Oceans Society, the Conservation Council of New Brunswick and a number of the land based organic associations all formally voted ‘No’ to the new Canadian Organic Aquaculture Standard. However the standard still passed the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB)’s requirement of 50% plus one vote.

In the end, the skewed representation of the voting membership base toward industry and government aided in the passing of this standard. Learn more at the Organic Salmon website.

What’s Wrong with the Standard?

The standard does not reflect the basic principles of organics and it would allow organic certification of practices that have been shown through published scientific research to negatively impact wild salmon and marine ecosystems.

Compare the general principles of organic production with the aquaculture standards:

General Principle: Protect the environment, minimize marine environment degradation, erosion and water quality degradation, decrease pollution, optimize biological productivity and promote a sound state of health.

The Canadian aquaculture standard:

  • allows open net-cage production of farmed salmon despite the large body of scientific evidence linking this practice to wild salmon declines, the spread of disease and sea lice, escapes, pollution, and other impacts on the marine environment.
  • includes no specific safeguards to reduce net-cage impacts; standards rely on general recommendations to “minimize” impacts which is no different than existing regulations.
  • includes no buffers for wild salmon migratory routes as a measure to protect juvenile wild fish.
  • allows top-of-the-food-chain fish like salmon that consume much more wild fish in their feed than the amount of farmed fish produced.

General Principle: Recycle materials and resources to the greatest extent possible within the enterprise.

The Canadian aquaculture standard:

  • companies are required to develop a plan to manage waste but there are no performance measures included nor a requirement to recapture farm waste that could be used to produce energy or provide fertilizer for additional food production.

General Principle: Ensure the production environment is free of known and perceived toxic and persistent chemical pesticides and fertilizers for at least three years prior to certification, and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are not used in production.

The Canadian aquaculture standard:

  • allows for use of synthetic paraciticides, such as SLICE which is classified as “very toxic to marine organisms”, to combat sea lice infestation on certified organic farms.
  • allows for up to 100% of fishmeal feed to be from non-organic sources, allowing toxins and pollutants that may be contained in wild fish which can contain toxins such as PCBs, heavy metals, and dioxins.
  • does not recognize that alternative feeds and closed containment systems can successfully reduce toxins in feed and reduce the use of chemical treatments.

General Principle: Utilizes renewable resources in locally organized production systems.

The Canadian aquaculture standard:

  • due to the “insufficient supplies of organic fishmeal”  allows fishmeal to be up to 100% non-organic, unsustainable sources.
  • allows “organic certified” fish to use substantially more wild fish in feed than farmed fish produced, a use of marine resources that results in a net-loss of marine protein because there is no limit on the amount of feed that can be composed of wild fishmeal and oil if the source meets an unenforecable “sustainability” standard.

Note: These principles are based on land-based agriculture. The standard now being put forth is based on agriculture principles because marine-based principles do not exist.

Such weak standards threaten the integrity of the organic label and negate others’ efforts to produce truly organic products. This standard violates the very principles of what an organics label should mean, and expose the Canadian government’s irresponsible management and promotion of net-cage aquaculture.

Net-cage farmed fish have no place in organic aquaculture standards. The Canadian standard needs to reflect practices that address the well-researched impacts of aquaculture to support the producers that are working to implement innovations that can deliver truly sustainable products.

Standards that allow business-as-usual salmon farming to slap on an organic label are unacceptable.

Comparison to Other Standards

The US standard was recommended by the National Organic Standards Board, but the necessary regulatory amendments are still pending. Thanks to outstanding support from the public, conservation organizations, and consumer advocacy groups, the US standard has much more stringent requirements such as:

  • Net-cages will not be allowed where they could impact the reproduction or migratory routes of wild fish or other marine life.
  • The use of wild fish in feed will be limited to trimmings and waste from environmentally responsible fisheries. The ratio of fish in feed to farmed fish produced cannot be greater than 1:1 with continual reductions over time.
  • Only indigenous species of local genotype can be used in net-cage production due to the inability to eliminate the risk of escapes.
  • 50% of waste nutrients (nitrogen & phosphorous) must be re-captured from net-cages.
  • No antibiotics or chemical parasiticides can be used.

Organic certification of net-cage farmed salmon has been controversial internationally. In the United Kingdom, the Soil Association chose to permanently certify farmed salmon using standards that still allowed the problems of net-cages to persist. In response the chairman, Lawrence Woodward, resigned from his position stating:

“Salmon farming in cages has nothing at all to do with organic principles. It is very regrettable that the Soil Association has gone down this line of trying to certify something that is so distant from the principles.” (Source)


Rather than compromising organic standards to fit the needs of salmon farming, the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform (CAAR) is working to improve the sustainability of the industry as a whole by fostering a transition from open net-cages to closed containment systems.

Closed containment technology would minimize if not entirely eliminate many of the environmental problems associated with open net-cage fish farms such as escapes, spread of sea lice, and interactions with marine predators that organic aquaculture standards cannot adequately address.