Farmed fish could be labeled organic

Proposed national standard would open label to fish meal but not wild fish

Posted: Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Wild fish can be labeled organic if they're sold as fish meal, but not if they're sold for human consumption.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

That's the standard the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Standards Board is proposing to adopt later this month. The public comment period closed Monday, and those in the Alaskan seafood industry spoke out against the rule.

"This whole organic thing has come around twisted so far," said Sandro Lane in Juneau. "If they can even consider something like that, isn't that completely ridiculous?"

And that's from a man who makes fish meal for a living. Sandro Lane, owner of Juneau-based Alaska Protein Recovery Inc., stands to benefit financially from the "organic" label.

Lane makes fish meal from Alaska wild fish, and his "high-quality protein product" is certified organic when he sells it to organic farmers as a soil supplement, but not when he sells it to fish farmers. That double standard is problematic for the credibility of the organic label, he said.

Not that commercial fishermen haven't been interested in garnering that label, though their opinions vary. Fishermen's groups tried and failed in past years. But they generally agree that if farmed fish that eat wild fish get the magic organic label, the wild fish in supermarkets should get that marketing benefit, too.

"If they're going to do one, they should be looking at both," said Mark Vinsel, executive director of United Fishermen of Alaska. "There's no way they can know more about the history of their wild fish meal than we know about our wild fisheries," Vinsel said.

"I think this does make a mockery of the organic program," said Dale Kelley, Alaska Trollers Association executive director and a commercial fisherman.

They're fighting for access to a very profitable market: Organic food was worth $4.7 billion in sales in the last year, and that until the last few months has grown between 13 percent and 33 percent a year, according to the Nielsen Co.

Organic is supposed to be a package deal for customers: Food with the label has been raised without pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. The other element is that it's supposed to be sustainable.

The standards board said organic customers "may or may not want to consume" farmed fish that have been fed wild fish, and so proposes to require that all such fish carry the label "Fed sustainably sourced wild fish" next to the name of the fish.

Sustainability requires that one shouldn't need more than a pound of food to make a pound of food. So the new organic proposal before the board proposes that a pound of farmed fish, by live weight, can't have eaten any more than a pound of fish meal.

Yet making a pound of fish meal generally requires several pounds of raw fish.

Geoff Shester said that's not good enough. Shester is the senior science manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Program, which does scientific reviews of farmed and wild fisheries' sustainability to help consumers decide what to buy. He sent suggestions to the national board Monday.

"Until they get something that's measureable, the current proposed standards aren't cutting it," Shester said. "What we're hoping to see is some tough performance-based metrics, so it's not just this vague language like 'all reasonable measures' or 'to the extent practicable,' which is the way many of the aquaculture standards are written."

Kelley said she suspected consumers would be in for further confusion if the proposal passed.

Add to that the fish sellers. In Juneau's Mendenhall Valley, meat department manager Kenny Kaplor cited lack of sustainability as why he doesn't buy farmed fish. The other reason he gave was that his local fishermen-suppliers wouldn't want to deal with him.

But would he sell "organic" farmed fish?

"Wow," he said. "How could that be? I don't know what that would mean."

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or e-mail

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