Challenges in certifying seafood discussed at conference

York geography Professor Peter Vandergeest says that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to the fish and seafood that make it to the dinner plate.

He should know. Active in controversies around eco-labelling and the certification of seafood, Vandergeest participated in a United States National Academy of Sciences workshop that launched efforts to systematize eco-labelling and certification for sustainability in the US in January.

And, more recently, he helped organize a day long session on environmental certification at the 2009 fall conference in Veracruz, Mexico, of the World Aquaculture Society (WAS), an international non-profit organization with over 3,000 members in about 100 countries. Founded in 1969, its primary focus is to strengthen and facilitate communication and information exchange on high-priority topics and emerging issues within the diverse global aquaculture community.  

Right: Peter Vandergeest

“These are excellent opportunities to bring our research into an ongoing discussion about how certification systems are being set up," says Vandergeest, the lead investigator on the three-year (2007 to 2010) Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada funded research project, Privatizing Environmental Governance (PEG): A Global Analysis of the Effects and Effectiveness of Environmental Certification for Farmed Salmon and Shrimp.

"The conference is a chance to explore different issues and questions surrounding the way that certification has become the favourite way to address social and environmental problems within the aquaculture industry," says Vandergeest. "It is also a key way to mobilize research to reach stakeholders outside the bounds of academia."

Vandergeest, PEG co-investigator Professor Derek Hall of Wilfred Laurier University, along with PEG team members Professor Saidul Islam (MA ’02, PhD ’08) of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and Beatriz Cid of Universidad de Concepción in Chile, presented papers at the WAS conference’s Challenges for Aquaculture Certification panel. Some of the topics they discussed included traceability in Japan, the acceptability of certification in Thailand, labour practices in Bangladesh and salmon farming in Chile. Islam and Cid both recently completed their PhDs in York’s sociology program with support from the PEG project.

The conference generated discussion around key challenges such as how to take account of the need for strong environmental regulations on one hand and the need for flexibility appropriate to local situations, especially in the global south on the other, says Vandergeest. The legitimacy of certification in the developing world, where it is seen as the rich northern countries and environmental organizations imposing their regulations, and practical ways of introducing social auditing were also popular themes for discussion amongst the 2,000 conference participants, as were labour standards in the industry.

“Our research shows that there is often a huge gap between labour practices and the proposed standards in these private regulatory systems," says Vandergeest.

Focusing on shrimp and salmon as the two highest valued and most controversial species in global aquaculture, Vandergeest and his fellow PEG researchers are looking at the effects of seafood certification on the shrimp and salmon industries and on the communities affected by intensive aquaculture.

The major proponents of a proposed Aquaculture Stewardship Council want environmental certification to encompass a major part of the aquaculture industry, especially the higher value species like salmon, shrimp, tilapia, tuna and pangasius. The ability, however, of these certification systems to really address the key problems associated with intensive aquaculture, and be set up in ways that will not exclude small producers, has been questioned by many observers, especially in the global south, says Vandergeest.

With research sites ranging from shrimp and salmon farms to corporate offices to supermarkets and international organizations, his team is also interested in how certification regimes could mitigate the negative environmental and social effects of intensive aquaculture. The results are also expected to be applicable to other controversial products including palm oil, wild caught seafood and forestry products.

For more information, visit the Privatizing Environmental Governance project or the York Centre for Asian Research. Web sites.