Aquaculture Certifications Exclude Local Stakeholders at Their Peril

VANCOUVER and HALIFAX — The lack of transparency and stakeholder inclusion in some of the largest aquaculture eco-certifications in the global seafood marketplace is a threat to their legitimacy, a new SeaChoice report finds. 

The report, Accountability in Seafood Sustainability: Improving the legitimacy of aquaculture certifications through better transparency and stakeholder inclusivity, reviewed the extent to which the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) and GLOBALG.A.P. are a product of and a platform for civil society stakeholder engagement. The assessment was based on defined best practices in external accountability as informed by peer-reviewed literature. 

Consumers will find these certifications’ eco-labels at their local grocery store on seafood such as farmed salmon, shrimp, basa and tilapia. Retailers often refer to these certifications as part of their sustainable seafood procurement policies. 

SeaChoice found that all three certifications claim adherence to guidelines or codes of conduct on stakeholder engagement such as those prescribed by GSSI, FAO and, in the case of ASC, ISEAL. Still, all have room for improvement in how and when they engage with civil society stakeholders. That said, the ASC was found to be the most inclusive and transparent eco-certification. 

As a form of market-based governance, voluntary sustainability certifications rely on external parties — including civil society stakeholders — to buy into them or risk losing market support. As advocates for environmental protection and/or social responsibility, civil society stakeholders such as nongovernmental organizations, as well as local communities, can have a significant stake in certification decisions. 

“When local communities and NGOs are denied the opportunity to contribute to certifications, including audits, these certifications miss out on valuable expertise, on-the-ground oversight and local knowledge,” stated Shannon Arnold, SeaChoice Steering Committee member from Ecology Action Centre. “Excluding stakeholders is likely to affect whether or not legitimacy is granted to a certification.”  

Of particular concern was the lack of requirement to consult with local stakeholders during farm audits under the BAP and GLOBALG.A.P. schemes. Additionally, neither certification makes audit reports available on its website to demonstrate a farm’s compliance with its standard. In comparison, the ASC requires auditors to consult with local stakeholders and publish audit reports.

The GLOBALG.A.P. certification also lacks any civil society stakeholders on its standard-development committees and governance bodies. These groups consist solely of industry representatives. 

“Including civil society stakeholders at the governance and committee levels is essential for ensuring all viewpoints are adequately represented and considered,” said Kelly Roebuck, from Living Oceans Society and lead report author. “It also helps combat any perceptions that industry is playing the role of ‘the fox guarding the henhouse.’” 

SeaChoice has provided each certification with tailored recommendations. These include ensuring civil society stakeholders are included in governance and committees, standard-development and audit processes, as well as publishing audit reports, establishing a monitoring and evaluation program and adopting third-party complaint mechanisms.