This review highlighted a number of important trends concerning aquaculture certification:
These trends have been leading to many standards targeting the same commodities and similar aspects of sustainability, often creating a very confusing panorama for producers.
Because of the often very large numbers of control points, achieving certification appears to come at a heavy cost for producers. It is frequently stated by the standard-setting organizations that complying with standards often leads to better management, hence a decrease in the farm operations cost. These experiences were also observed through the adoption of BMP, which are generally aimed at increasing sustainability without necessarily requiring a formalized conformity assessment process.38 Although this is supported by an increasing amount of evidence and has elicited several efforts in the Asia-Pacific region (e.g. NACA-promoted projects in India and Viet Nam), conformity assessment frequently requires relatively large financial inputs to be paid by farmers.
It is also often declared that farmers will have to obtain certification to be able to conserve a place in the market. Although it is clear that the market for certified products is increasing rapidly, it is also true that, with few exceptions (e.g. GLOBALGAP certified salmon), the market for certified aquaculture products is still a niche market, which only a few and relatively larger producers appear to be able to access. A detailed examination of the schemes also revealed that the requirements of most schemes (i.e. all the schemes examined with the potential exception of organic programmes) are well beyond the possibilities of most producers, especially small-scale farmers in the Asia-Pacific region. This is also witnessed by the geographical distribution of certified farmers and processors in some schemes (e.g. GAA/ACC). In fact, although certified processors seem to be homogeneously distributed in major aquaculture-producing countries, the distribution of certified farms appears to be strongly biased towards American businesses, with Asian farmers being poorly represented. In view of the increasing global demand for fisheries products, it would appear that demand for uncertified products will also be increasing, meaning that uncertified products will continue to have a place in the market for quite some time, of course provided they are in compliance with the requirements set by international and bilateral agreements (especially concerning food safety).
It is possible that standards will become less strict, therefore becoming more accessible to a wider range and number of producers and becoming a type of "minimum acceptable standard". This scenario however appears to be unlikely and, looking at the trends described, it is to be expected that schemes will increase the number of control points even further, perhaps incorporating more strongly animal welfare (which is now being addressed also by the OIE) and the cost of externalities such as energy consumption (now addressed by six out of ten schemes), air pollution and others.
What then are the incentives for farmers to obtain certification and not simply to use standards as a way to improve their management practices without seeking formalized certification? It would appear that formalized certification is an aspiration only for farmers responding to the requirements of the direct buyers of their products. In this case, farmers would consider the costs and benefits of complying with a certain scheme requested by the buyer and acting accordingly. During these considerations, farmers would also have to consider the risk of producing a product that targets compliance with a specific scheme, but failing to pass inspection. Because of the costs and risks that farmers face when complying with a certification scheme, compliance will most likely have to be driven by a system of premium prices paid to farmers to compensate them for their efforts. A number of successful examples have been witnessed in the agriculture sector but also in aquaculture, with organic and fair-trade products facing proportionally higher market prices, therefore pulling farmers towards compliance.
Based on this discussion, it would appear that targeting certification blindly, i.e. farmers seeking compliance to certification schemes without a direct link with the market would be an expensive and, generally speaking, poorly rewarding strategy. This strategy would have an even lower applicability if schemes did not lead to premium prices.
The process of deciding whether to comply with a certain certification scheme or not will be even more challenging for small-scale producers, who are often resource-limited and whose livelihoods are often more vulnerable. For small-scale farmers, establishing a direct link with the market would be in most cases almost impossible. Farming systems in the Asia-Pacific region are in fact dominated by networks of traders which are making quality assurance and traceability huge challenges for all the stakeholders involved. It would therefore appear that for small-scale producers to have access to and benefit from a certification scheme they would have to be part of more direct supply chains. This approach would most likely be possible for small-scale producers only if they are part of farmers' organizations. The development of farmers' groups for small-scale producers has been receiving increasing attention over the past years. Experiences on the development of aquaclubs in India proved particularly successful at developing a mechanism for improved management, information sharing and at improving relationships with other links in the supply chain.39 The development of farmers' groups is being encouraged by a number of schemes (two in this review), with some schemes, e.g. FLO, actually operating only through the certification of farmers' groups. Because of the many benefits to be achieved by small-scale producers through their participation in farmers' groups, this approach should continue to be promoted broadly.
There is no doubt that improving the sustainability of the aquaculture sector is of outmost importance not only for stakeholders in aquaculture but also for other stakeholders relying on the same resources as the aquaculture sector. The practices contained in most certification standards appear to tackle this objective, although for some schemes the requirements appear to be too demanding, the number of control points are at times very high (therefore making conformity assessment also more expensive) and/or are sometimes heavily biased towards the interests of the consumers, more than those of the producers. Standards are most often developed through a process that excludes some of the stakeholder groups directly impacted by the standards and, when multistakeholders fora are used, the process of standard development is most often not fully consensus-based.40 The detailed analysis of the schemes most relevant to the Asia-Pacific region revealed that IFOAM was the only scheme currently applicable to the aquaculture sector and was developed using both a multistakeholder and consensus-based approach. Therefore to truly tackle sustainability there appears to be the need for the development of harmonized standards that are a true equilibrium between the interests of all the stakeholders involved. In this context, the adoption of practices recommended by ISEAL, ISO and the FAO/NACA guidelines for aquaculture certification currently under development appear to be extremely important. Such standards should be more inclusive rather than exclusive; they should address the needs of the largest proportion of producers and therefore they should develop a mechanism to drive towards sustainability, rather than differentiating "better" from "worse" producers. This concept of "inclusiveness" is particularly important. As stated earlier, all the certification schemes currently applicable to aquaculture are niche schemes and, as such, they cannot target the broad sustainability of the sector. Therefore, any comparisons and detailed assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of different schemes would seem to have only marginal use.
In addition to the development and promotion of schemes that truly target sustainability, it is also worth exploring different options for assessing conformity to standards. At present, third party certification appears to be the most common mechanism to assess conformity. However there are other potential approaches that could be adopted that some schemes (e.g. IFOAM) have been exploring.
The use of government officers to implement inspections would appear to be a more cost effective strategy than third party certification although arguably less credible because of the links that government has with producers and their direct interest in having many certified enterprises. Fully supported government schemes however run the risk of being accused of providing subsidies to farmers. In addition, because governments are both in charge of certifying the process and the products being marketed (or exporters), their programmes may be more vulnerable to criticism if products produced within the scheme show major compliance failures (e.g. they contain residues of banned antibiotics) as opposed to schemes that certify the process solely and, as such, are not also responsible for the quality of traded products. For these reasons, it may be best for government institutions to be involved in voluntary certification schemes through a cost-sharing mechanism (see hereunder).
The approach used by some WWF offices and the Monterey Bay Aquarium is also particularly interesting. Although they do not allow differentiating between individual producers, they classify commodities (based also on their geographic location) depending on the degree of sustainability associated with their production. In this respect this "traffic light" approach resembles the process used by the MSC to certify sustainable fisheries, although it lacks a true process of assessing sustainability through field surveys or similar studies. Using standards developed through a true process of consensus to conduct such field assessments would allow the certification of areas and commodities instead of single enterprises. This approach would also allow taking into account the wider impact of the sector in a specific area, an impact that is dependent not only on compliance by the farmers but also includes, inter alia, the development of aquaculture plans, the availability of services for producers and compliance to regulations by input suppliers. This mechanism would allow the development of "sustainable aquaculture zones" which could then be certified as sustainable and used by buyers to source their aquaculture products. This approach would of course run the risk of non-compliant individuals potentially jeopardizing the certified status through compliance failures, although peer pressure and the involvement in this process of a wide range of stakeholders would reduce this risk. These sustainable aquaculture zones could be potentially as big as whole countries making the cost of conformity assessment relatively negligible for individual stakeholders.
The development of a system similar to the Carrefour Quality Line system would also appear to reduce costs for producers. Farmers would be requested to produce products following a set of standards requested by retailers. Suppliers would then work with farming communities to ensure their compliance to the standards and would then source the product from compliant producers and bring it to the retailers. This approach however would require products to be of homogeneous quality and have a recognizable trait that makes the product "special" on the market. At this level, the establishment of a mechanism to market aquaculture products that have been produced following sustainable aquaculture practices (e.g. BMP) in buffer zones within Marine Protected Areas (MPA) would appear worthwhile exploring.
Certification is a mechanism to increase the credibility of claims related to quality. The development of relationships between farmers and consumers (or their organizations) that are based on trust may also be an approach worth exploring following the experiences of the Participatory Guarantee System encouraged by IFOAM. Although workable in situations in which producers and consumers are members of the same community (e.g. for products that are targeting the domestic market), in most situations in which markets are located away from the areas in which products are grown (which is most often the case in the aquaculture sector), intermediaries capable of ascertaining the quality of products, whether this is based on actual standards or not, will be needed for this mechanism to work.
It must be pointed out that all of the aforementioned approaches would be more effective if they were linked to a system of premium prices to be paid through the supply chain, but most importantly to the producers, who are critical to the achievement of the quality attributes requested.
Certification costs are often borne by the producers, although if a scheme requires certification throughout the production chain, all the links will have to pay the costs associated with certification. The development of cost-sharing mechanisms to assist producers, especially those who are small scale, to comply with standards should also be explored further, especially when compliance to standards brings benefits to a wide range of stakeholders.
Governments often benefit from compliance to standards because of their responsibility in ensuring the quality of exported products or to improve the sustainability of their respective national aquaculture sectors through environmental protection or protecting the interests of local communities. In Asian countries, voluntary quality standards have become, to a great extent, a strategy aimed at addressing compliance with the law, which is often difficult to enforce in view of the extremely large number of both registered and unregistered producers. In fact, voluntary government-led efforts addressing the broad sustainability of the sector appear to be more common in Asian countries than in Europe or North America, where governments are more focused on the development of legislation (which is more easily enforceable) and voluntary organic schemes. Establishing a system entirely supported by government institutions would however be vulnerable to subsidy accusations. However, governments would be justified in devoting efforts to promoting environmental protection, which, unless there is a risk of self-pollution, is arguably a lower priority for farmers.
Because of the often very diverse and dynamic supply chains, processors often access the quality (especially in terms of drug residues) of products using postharvest assessments. The compliance to preharvest standards by farmers would reduce the risk encountered by processors, therefore potentially reducing the need for postharvest tests. For this reason, processors would have the necessary incentive to support farmers to comply with standards addressing preharvest quality attributes. This approach seems to be of increasing importance in view of the increasing requirements for traceable products and the increasingly stringent importation requirements that have occasionally led to the establishment of strict conditions for the importation of fisheries products. The mechanism through which processors support farmers' compliance could simply be through the payment of premium prices; other forms (e.g. supplying extension services etc.) may be necessary for this approach to work so supply chains should often be shortened. Once again, the establishment of farmers' groups would allow a more direct marketing of products, also serving this level.
Within this cost-sharing mechanism, the producers would then focus on implementing practices that directly benefit production, e.g. health management, water quality monitoring within the farm, etc.
Through a cost-sharing partnership among governments, processors and producers, compliance to standards would become relatively cheaper (in terms of resources) for producers, therefore improving the chances of compliance. Interest in the establishment of this mechanism has been expressed already in some countries (e.g. Viet Nam) and, if these initial ideas were to be piloted, experiences should be carefully examined to maximize the number of stakeholders who would benefit.
37 EC. 2005. Food supply chain dynamics and quality certification. Final report. (DG JRC/IPTS).
38 Corsin, F., Mohan, C.V., Padiyar, A., Yamamoto, K., Chanratchakool, P. & Phillips, M.J. In press. Codes of practice and better management: a solution for shrimp health management? In M.B. Reantaso, C.V. Mohan, M. Crumlish & R. Subasinghe, eds. Diseases in Asian Aquaculture VI. Fish Health Section, Asian Fisheries Society.
39 Padiyar, P.A., Phillips, M.J., Bhat, B.V., Mohan, C.V., Ravi, B.G., Mohan, A.B.C. & Sai, P. In press. Cluster level adoption of better management practices in shrimp (P. monodon) farming: an experience from Andhra Pradesh, India. In M.B. Reantaso, C.V. Mohan, M. Crumlish & R. Subasinghe, eds. Diseases in Asian Aquaculture VI. Fish Health Section, Asian Fisheries Society.
40 See Annex 5 for the ISO definition of consensus.