Seafood Watch flip-flop on farmed salmon clearly based on politics, not science

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch guide claims to be science-based, but is actually quite shallow.

The Seafood Watch guide, holy grail of seafood guides, appears to be operating on some pretty sketchy double standards.

The newly-revised guide was published this week, and it raises some big red flags.

Why endorse certified farmed shrimp, but not certified farmed salmon?

Why does the Monterey Bay Aquarium ‘s guide consider the GAA Best Aquaculture Practices standards for farmed shrimp good enough to merit a yellow “good alternative” rating, but not the GAA BAP standards for farmed salmon?

It doesn’t make sense. Not, at least, from a science perspective.

A newly-published report by the group found shrimp farms certified as both two-star and four-star BAP met a “benchmarking equivalence” process against existing Seafood Watch-approved farmed shrimp.

This convinced the guide writers to bump farms producing 100,000 tonnes of farmed shrimp from red to yellow. This should be good news for BC BAP-certified salmon farms, right?

Wrong. Even though all farmed salmon coming from BC is now at least two-star BAP-certified that wasn’t good enough for the Seafood Watch guidemakers.

Politics, not science, driving force behind guide

It’s not surprising, really. The new guidelines have been controversial and criticized for ignoring science that the guide makers don’t like. Trade news sources Intrafish and Seafood Intelligence revealed last week that the much-vaunted Seafood Watch guide flip-flopped on farmed salmon.

A job interview at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program.
Behind the scenes at a job interview at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program.

These news sources require a subscription, so if you don’t have an account, here’s the highlights.

  1. The Monterey Bay Aquarium‘s Seafood Watch guide program recently released its updated standards, the first time farmed salmon has been reviewed in nearly a decade.
  2. The report has been in review for an unusually long time — nearly two years. And last year, a preliminary draft ranked farmed salmon as a “good alternative” (yellow).
  3. However, in the past year, something changed. The final report keeps farmed salmon in the red (“avoid”) category, and makes a number of astonishingly incorrect comments about BC farmed salmon.

How could they make these crazy claims?

The notes in the report explaining why farmed salmon from BC wasn’t good enough to get a “good alternative” ranking reek of political manipulation.

It must also be emphasized that salmon farming in BC continues to have a number of concerns; while arguably more efficient than other forms of intensive (terrestrial) livestock, it still consumes substantially more wild fish than it produces, it uses substantial quantities of antibiotics highly-important to human health in open production systems…

Wait, what? Salmon farming uses fewer antibiotics than any other farmed livestock. And in BC, the use of antibiotics has declined to only 17% of what it was the last time Seafood Watch revised its guide.

Why wasn’t this acknowledged? That’s an incredibly progressive reduction, but it doesn’t even get a footnote.

The only farmed salmon to get a “good alternative” rating in the guide, Verlasso, used almost the exact same amount of antibiotics per tonne of fish farmed as BC salmon farmers. That didn’t stop Verlasso salmon from getting yellow.

Clearly, “antibiotics” are a weak excuse from the guidemakers to reject BC salmon. Human beings will face more of a threat from antibiotics in open systems by using the public washroom at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Also, the claims about farmed salmon using “substantially” more wild fish than protein produced are just wrong. All BC salmon farming companies have been at nearly a 1:1 ratio for several years, and now, since their feed suppliers are sourcing fisheries byproducts which would otherwise have been thrown away, BC salmon farms produce more fish protein than the wild fish protein they use in feed.

Why wasn’t this acknowledged?

it continues to have escapes of a non-native species for which a (small) risk of establishment remains…

The risk is so small that not even NOAA thinks it’s worth worrying about. We also have a lot of info in our library here that upholds NOAA’s assessment.

…it continues to represent a source of sea lice infection for juvenile wild fish.

Again, NOAA doesn’t see any evidence that this poses any threat to wild fish. And we have loads of sea lice science in our library showing they pose no threat to wild fish.

At least one non native pathogen appears to have been introduced into the region for which the impacts, as yet unknown, remain a high concern.

What pathogen? What science is the basis for this claim? Does this refer to the thoroughly-discredited claims by Alexandra Morton about ISA in BC? The claims that were refuted by thousands of tests done by Alaska, BC, and Washington State?

If baseless activist claims are what Seafood Watch is using to make decisions, they cannot claim they are making decisions based on science.

Not worth the cardstock it’s printed on

Monterey Bay had a real opportunity here to show how dedicated its program is to good science, and that it can look at the incredible changes salmon farming has undergone in the past 10 years and give it a fair second look.

But they blew it.

It’s obvious that despite the reams of science showing that BC farmed salmon is AT LEAST as good as Verlasso, someone decided to hold BC farmed salmon to an even higher standard.

And that shows the process is based on politics, not science.

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