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reLAKSation no 787

Clear and simple: A recent edition of the current affairs TV programme ’Four Corners’, aired in Australia, has caused some controversy locally. The programme titled ‘Big Fish’ ‘investigated’ the salmon farming industry in Tasmania. The programmes website states ‘Four Corners – investigative journalism at its best’ but in our opinion, we would hope that Australian TV journalism is usually better because in this instance the journalistic standards fell a long way short of the best. It is only necessary to watch the section on pigmentation to see that the programme was trying to be sensationalist over an issue that is effectively a non-story. The presenter told the audience that the synthetic astaxanthin is a closely guarded secret but that she had managed to get hold of a ‘Samlofan’, which she said is like a colour chart for paints.  She says that it shows a range of pigments that farmers can choose to artificially colour the salmon flesh. What a revelation! Perhaps someone should have pointed out that similar pigments are used to colour egg yolks, which clearly have a wider consumption than salmon but ‘Four Corners’ were not making any fuss about that.

Much of the programme focussed on whether one specific farming area has suffered as a result of too many salmon being stocked. We, at Callander McDowell, are simply unaware of these local issues but the different companies all seem to take a different approach. It does seem that the industry should resolve this between themselves and not on national TV. The Tasmanian Government has dismissed the claims made in the programme pointing out that ‘Four Corners’ is a current affairs programme and not a science based documentary and was never going to be supportive of the local salmon industry. The Minister responsible said that the programme makers’ position was ‘clearly evident’ when he viewed the programme. This is not surprising as similar programmes trying to paint salmon farming in a poor light have been aired in various countries around the world. This is the inevitable hangover from years of deliberate misinformation from the environmental sector that has continued to plague the salmon farming industry.

Whilst most of the programme offered little new, one section attracted our attention. This was an interview with Dermot O’Gorman, who is CEO of the World Wildlife Fund in Australia. He was interviewed because the programme highlighted that Tassal, one of the Tasmanian salmon farming companies, has partnered with the WWF in addition to being certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council. The programme showed part of a Tassal corporate video that states ‘Tasaal has come a long way working with the WWF – it gives them the social licence to operate in the marine environment’. The corporate video also states that ‘As a salmon farming company, the ASC is the gold standard to achieve’. The presenter of ‘Four Corners’ then goes on to say that Tassal is the only company in Australia able to use both the ASC and the WWF logos. We, at Callander McDowell, can only wonder that if the company is certified to the gold standard, why it would want to use the WWF’s panda logo as well?

The programme showed a consumer pack of salmon that has both the ASC and the WWF Panda logo.

WWF logo

The presenter asked Dermot O’Gorman ‘if people trust the WWF and does he think that their logo is what engenders it to consumers?’ He replied that the WWF have a high degree of trust in the Australian market as they do globally. The presenter responded by asking what assurance comes from putting the Panda logo on Tassal’s products. Mr O’Gorman said that the idea of linking the WWF Panda logo to the ASC logo is to assure Australian consumers that the product they’re buying is responsibly sourced salmon – ‘Clear and simple’.

In our opinion, it’s far from clear and simple.

Surely, if the ASC is the gold standard for environmental sustainability and social responsibility then why does the WWF feel it necessary to also add the panda logo to packs of farmed salmon to assure consumers that the fish they are buying are responsibly sourced salmon?  Surely, if consumers are interested in issues of sustainability then the ASC logo should be sufficient to reassure them? The message shouldn’t need to be reinforced at all. Even Mr O’Gorman admits that the ASC is the gold standard in sustainable salmon farming that he believes sets the standard both in Tasmania and around the world.

Yet, this doesn’t stop the WWF in Australia from entering partnerships, which according to Mr O’Gorman, helps their ‘conservation work’. He told the presenter that if she was implying that such partnerships compromise the credibility of the WWF brand then he would beg to disagree. The programme highlighted that the farming company paid WWF a quarter of a million Australian dollars a year for three years plus bonus payment to be able to use the panda logo. Another farming company told the programme that they had been asked for up to $400,000 a year by the WWF for a partnership agreement but this sum didn’t include use of the WWF Panda logo. The conditions were such that they decided not to proceed.

Since the TV programme aired, WWF Australia have published a statement on their website. Although Mr O’Gorman suggested on the programme that the partnerships help their conservation work, the statement says that the farming company delivered many improvements in working practices including removal of polluting copper nets; 95% reduction of all antibiotics and a 30% reduction in the use of wild fish in food but nothing about the conservation work.

Given the recent controversy in Chile over the amount of antibiotic usage then perhaps it is surprising that WWF have not provided their expertise there to attain the same 95% reductions as in Tasmania, After-all, WWF works across the industry and especially with the ‘Global Salmon Initiative’. A recent announcement by the GSI that 20% of all member farms are now ASC certified was accompanied by a statement from WWF encouraging more retailers to offer ASC certified salmon. It seems that whilst the ASC claim to be an independent organisation yet the WWF appear to retain their influence.

The WWF Australia statement says that whilst there have been important gains, they are now looking to achieve further improvements in the salmon farming industry. One improvement is that they hope to eliminate wild fish feed in aquaculture.

This may seem a principled aim for the WWF but it is an aim with which we certainly have a problem. Salmon’s natural diet includes small fish and other marine proteins. Removing all of this from salmon feed impacts on the characteristics of the fish and may even compromise its health and welfare. However, we are more concerned about the selective approach adopted by the WWF as to this aim than the specific impact on farmed salmon.

Firstly, whilst WWF Australia do not appear to produce a consumer guide to choosing sustainable fish, plenty of other national branches of the WWF do. We have randomly selected the version offered by WWF in Denmark (as it is less confusing than some of the others). Best choices for eating salmon are ASC certified farmed salmon and wild Pacific salmon. Thus, according to the WWF, the best choice would be farmed salmon fed on anything but wild marine protein or wild Pacific salmon that gorges on the same wild marine proteins that WWF objects to in relation to farmed fish. The reality is that wild salmon (often propagated in hatcheries) consumes about 12 kg of fish to produce 1kg of fish flesh whereas farmed salmon, whose diets are streamlined to maximise the protein for growth can convert every kilo consumed into a kilo of salmon flesh. It seems that it is the wild fish that is wasteful and potentially more damaging to the environment especially when so many hatchery raised fish are released into the wild to boost returns.

Secondly, we return to a subject on which we regularly comment. Pet cats in Australia consume more fish protein than any human. There is no reason why there needs to be any fish in cat food yet over 2.5 million tonnes of fish are used in cat food around the world ever year.  We’ve searched the WWF Australia website and cannot find any reference to fish in cat food. Why are they not campaigning to reduce this usage of fish in pet feeds when they are so keen to eliminate it from fish feed?

WWF seem to have a vision of aquaculture which they would like to impose on the salmon farming industry. It appears that they have the resources and influence to do so but we, at Callander McDowell, argue that if they think the ASC is the gold standard then the WWF’s job is done and they should back off. A recent report has identified that more animals and plants are under greater threat of extinction than ever. The WWF should concentrate on their main role of protecting wildlife rather than continue to orchestrate the direction of the aquaculture sector. Unfortunately, as we pointed out when WWF first announced they intended to establish the ASC, this would only be a first step and that the WWF will only be happy when their vision of aquaculture is met.

Finally, the WWF have encouraged the salmon industry to be fully transparent through membership of the GSI but the WWF do not live up to the same aspiration. It is unclear who is responsible for WWF policy on aquaculture and more importantly, who is funding this policy. We have previously seen external funding being used to formulate public opinion of salmon farming and farmed salmon through environmental groups. Could the same be still happening? In the words of Dermot O’Gorman, what it is not is ‘clear and simple’.

The Four Corners TV programme can be viewed at The page also contains a full transcript of the programme.


It is a tragedy: We are indebted to our readers for feedback about the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’. It seems that it is a theme that is not without controversy. Last week we highlighted a presentation given by Geir Lasse Taranger of IMR at the NCE Seafood Innovation Clusters’ ‘Sustainable Growth Summit’. The presentation was entitled ‘Sustainability and Governance – how to avoid the Tragedy of the Commons’.

Unfortunately, we never did learn how to avoid the ’Tragedy of the Commons’ because Geir Lasse Taranger failed to even mention, let alone discuss it, during his presentation. However, it did come up during the Q&A. after saying that there is a high connectivity between sites and neighbours he said that ‘I didn’t discuss the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ I just wanted that it sinks in’. Perhaps, the sustainability oriented audience at this Summit were already familiar with the concept and therefore he felt there was no need to highlight it further to this meeting.

When we discussed the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ in the last issue of reLAKSation we suggested that the proposed traffic light system in Norway was the inevitable result of the thinking behind the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ however, it seems that there is a more realistic counter argument that questions this whole concept and hence the need for this dubious traffic light system. According to Ian Angus, of Climate and Capitalism, the modern interpretation of the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ was written by Garrett Hardin, a University of California professor, who was until then best known for being the author of a biology textbook that argued for ‘controlled breeding’ of ‘genetically defective’ people. In 1968, he wrote an essay, published in ‘Science’, that argued that communities that shared resources inevitably pave the way to their own destruction. Instead of wealth for all, there is wealth for none.

It is possible to see how this idea applies to the sea lice issue and the traffic light system. The idea that production of salmon that is too intensive, will lead to a plague of sea lice that will destroy not only the salmon industry but the wider environment including wild salmon and sea trout.

This idea comes from the common lands that existed in England up to the 1800’s. Hardin argued that the peasant farmers that grazed their animals on common land will think that they may be able to glean a greater return by grazing an extra animal as the impact on the land will not be borne by himself but by all those other who graze their animals on the same common land. Hardin suggest that the same thought would occur to every rational farmer and soon the common land would be overstocked, over grazed and eventually destroyed. Freedom of access will bring ruin to all.

Ian Angus points out that according to a World Bank discussion paper, the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ has been for over forty years the dominant paradigm with which social scientists assess natural resource issues. Apparently, it has been used time and time again to justify stealing indigenous people’s land, privatising health care and much much more. Ian says that like many sacred texts, the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ is more often cited than read. He says that whilst it sounds authoritative and scientific, it falls far short of science.

The problem about the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ is that Garrett Hardin ignored what actually happened in the management of real common land whilst not even providing one example to support this own theories.

In a paper in 1985, Susan Cox, wrote that what happened on common land was not a tragedy but a triumph. For hundreds of years, land was successfully managed by the local community. In England, this self-regulation was known as ‘stinting’ where limits were set on the number of animals that could be grazed on the land. The system only broke down when wealthy land-owners began to over-stock the land in disputes about enclosure. This led to Parliamentary Enclosure Acts and the eventual privatisation of common land.

We can see similar parallels in salmon farming in Scotland, where the angling fraternity including wealthy landowners, who run vast sporting estates in Scotland, have demanded that the salmon industry be moved from sea lochs to closed containment in order to protect wild fish and their fishing interests. This is just like enclosure or privatisation of common land or in this case of common waterways. It is thus easy to see where the idea of the traffic light system originates. However, it is an idea that is flawed because there is still no hard evidence that sea lice from salmon farms are responsible for the deaths of wild fish. Research involving the relates of treated and untreated smolts and comparing the number of fish returning has shown that the difference in mortality is about 2%. Given that 95% of smolts fail to return for other reasons, this focus on traffic lights is simply deflecting attention away from the real issues affecting wild salmon.

The ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ is clearly important to Geir Lasse Taranger of IMR otherwise he wouldn’t have included it in the title of his presentation, but not significant enough to impart its importance to the wider audience. His presentation can be viewed at at about 2hours 37 mins.


Tarnished:  In our first commentary, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council is referred to as the Gold Standard. Presumably this means that it is of the highest standard but this is something which we would question. Our concern relates to traceability and the chain of custody. The ASC has devoted a section on their website to these issues:

Once they’re certified, farms can sell their products as ASC certified. To credibly make such a chain or to use the ASC logo, systems must be in place to ensure traceability.  Having traceability systems in place ensures that no product mixing or substitutions can occur. Chain of Custody certification guarantees that the product was produced in compliance with ASC’s credible standards for responsible aquaculture.

Certified products will be traced through the supply chain by Chain of Custody (CoC) certification. Every company that handles the product in the supply chain needs to hold a valid CoC certificate. Only then will the product be allowed to carry the ASC logo.

We presume that if there is a complete chain of custody from farm to retail, then it should be possible for consumers to identify the farm which produced the certified produce. The ASC lists every farm that has been certified on their website so each farm must be identifiable in the ASC system.

A new pack of prawns has recently been launched in the UK retail sector. The front label clearly displays a large logo of the ASC. We were therefore interested in finding out more information about the prawns including which farms the prawns were sourced but we were disappointed. The pack not only fails to identify the specific farmed from where the prawns originated but even the specific country of origin. Instead, the label states:

‘Farmed in Ecuador, Indonesia, Honduras, Nicaragua or Vietnam’.

We know that labelling is often produced in this way to cover all bases in case of problems with supply but surely when the consumer is being asked to buy into the certification of environmental sustainability and social responsibility, the production area if not the actual farm should be specified on the pack.  Some retailers do this for other farmed seafood, even when it is not certified so it should be possible for certified seafood to be identified in the same way.

The pack does state that the product comes from a farm that has been independently certified to the ASC’s standards for responsibly farmed seafood and then it provides a code. However, this code is the chain of custody code for the processor who packed the product but clearly, the processor packs product from lots of farms so this doesn’t really help with the traceability. Consumers are simply expected to have blind faith that the ASC are being up front about the produce they certify.

Interestingly, Seafood reports that GlobalGAP farmed salmon can be traced by the consumer right back to the farm. This has been made possible by the consumer labelling scheme GGN. Consumers simply type the thirteen-digit code on the pack into the GGN website in order to receive information about the farm thereby ensuring full transparency and traceability. It is a major failing that the ASC is unable to provide a similar service. Instead, it seems consumers buying ASC certified products only need to know that it was produced somewhere on this planet. The fact that the processer who packed the product can be identified is largely irrelevant to the consumer.

Surely if ASC Is the gold standard, then it should be of the highest standard across all the supply chain? In our opinion, that gold is somewhat tarnished.