Sunday, December 12, 2010

Are Vietnamese catfish sustainable?

Just as I catch a plane to Vietnam, I leave you with an article from the Mekong River Commission.

Global catfish standards imminent as Pangasius Aquaculture Dialogue winds up

By Peter Starr *

Nguyen Van Sang, deputy director of the Research
Institute for Aquaculture No 2, at the final meeting in
Can Tho
Photo: Lem Chamnap

Issues related to feed and genetics emerge as last-minute hurdles to a global industry agreement

After two and a half years of discussion, the Pangasius Aquaculture Dialogue held its fifth and final round of talks in Can Tho City in the Mekong Delta in March, leaving technical working groups to finalise global standards for two species of shark catfish by June. The standards are aimed at the top 20 percent of producers of Sutchi river catfish (Pangasianodon hypophthalmus) and Bocourt’s catfish (Pangasius bocourti), two indigenous Mekong species that are now exported to more than 100 countries, primarily in Europe. According to WWF estimates, global production of these two species grew from about 200,000 tonnes in 2004 to about 1.8 million tonnes in 2009. Viet Nam alone accounted for 1.1 million tonnes in 2009 followed by Bangladesh with about 0.3 million tonnes and India with about 0.2 million tonnes.

Launched in Ho Chi Minh City in September, 2007, the pangasius dialogue has overlapped with seven other WWF-coordinated aquaculture dialogues. Tilapia standards were finalised in December last year (see box on page 29) and standards for the two catfish species and bivalves (clams, scallops, mussels and oysters) are expected to be completed during the second quarter of this year. Other standards for abalone, salmon, seriola/cobia, shrimp and trout are scheduled to be finalised by the end of this year. Like the tilapia standards, the catfish standards will be overseen by a new Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) which is expected to be set up by WWF and the Dutch Sustainable Trading Initiative in 2011 to complement the existing Marine Stewardship Council which focuses on capture fisheries (see Catch and Culture, Vol 15, No 1.). According to Flavio Corsin, the WWF’s senior aquaculture advisor in Hanoi, “the ASC will work with independent and accredited certification bodies who will contract auditors to certify farms Certification standards that adopt the dialogue standards.” The standards being developed for catfish are applicable to all three production systems used in the Mekong Delta—ponds, pens and cages—and may later be extended to other species from the shark catfish family, known as Pangasiidae.

Feed management
While social and health issues were the main hurdles to overcome at the fourth Pangasius Aquaculture Dialogue meeting in Ho Chi Minh City in August last year, feed management emerged as a major stumbling block at the two-day meeting in Can Tho in March. To ensure that feed ingredients are sustainable, participants agreed that uncooked or unprocessed fish and fish products should not be used for the two species of catfish. They also agreed to prohibit feed made from pangasius by-products as well as species that are either designated as threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) or protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

But the Can Tho meeting failed to resolve the key question of whether or not to include standards of the International Fishmeal and Fish Oil Organisation (IFFO) as an indicator of sustainable fish sourcing. Based in Britain, the IFFO has recently developed a Global Standard for Responsible Supply with certification requirements for sourcing, traceability and manufacturing practices. In February, a Peruvian anchovy fishmeal plant operated by Tecnologica de Alimentos SA (TASA), the word’s largest fishmeal producer, became the first feed company to be certified under the new IFFO standard. While the dialogue meeting in Ho Chi Minh City in August last year agreed to incorporate the IFFO standard with two other feed standards, public comments received since then had questioned the new standard.

Even though it complies with FAO guidelines, critics argued that the IFFO standard was not sufficiently rigourous. Catfish producers, they said, should instead focus on ensuring that fish feed is sourced from fisheries that comply with the standards of certified members of the International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labelling (ISEAL) Alliance. Set up in 2002, the ISEAL Alliance is based in Britain and includes the Marine Stewardship Council among its founding members. Some argued that ISEAL compliance was a long-term goal that could only be achieved within five years.

In the interim, one option is for catfish producers to focus on feed from fisheries meeting minimum standards under the FishSource scheme operated by Sustainable Fisheries Partnership based in Jakarta and San Francisco. But minimum scores would have to be accompanied by a stock assessment. Others noted that the FishSource option was impractical for catfish producers as it would limit their sources of fishmeal and fish oil to Norwegian, Icelandic and North Sea herring fisheries and by-products from processing non-catfish species which are not widely available, at least in Viet Nam. As a compromise, it was suggested that the requirement for stock assessments for fisheries source for feed could be dropped in exchange for a higher FishSource score. After failing to reach a consensus, the Can Tho meeting agreed to let the technical working group on feed management resolve the issue, described by some participants as a potential deal breaker.


Genetics emerged as the second contentious issue in Can Tho. Participants agreed that catfish farms should be located in areas where the farmed species is indigenous or has a self-recruiting stock established. But the meeting failed to agree on how to define the establishment of self-recruiting stocks, a key issue for producers in Bangladesh and India where the two species have been introduced. Under the International Standards for Responsible Tilapia Aquaculture completed in December, producers must show that the tilapia species is naturally reproducing in the receiving waters of the operation on or before January 1, 2008. In Africa, producers have to do likewise for both the species and the strain of tilapia farmed.

Pham Quoc Lam, chief representative of Danish catfish
importer Butler’s Choice in Viet Nam
Photo: Lem Chamnap

The tilapia standards consider alien species to be established if they have a reproducing population inferred from “multiple discoveries of adult and juvenile life stages over at least two consecutive years.” Given that successful establishment may require multiple introductions, species are excluded if records of their discoveries are based on “one or only a few nonreproducing individuals whose occurrence may merely reflect transient species or unsuccessful invasions.” For producers in Bangladesh and India, the definition of established self-recruiting stocks will determine whether they can meet the standards. According to Dr Corsin, who has been coordinating the dialogue since 2007, outreach activities in Bangladesh had not found any scientific documentation of local introductions of either species.

Among other genetic issues, the Can Tho meeting agreed that the standards would prohibit the use of wild-caught seed as well as genetically-engineered and hybrid seed. It also agreed on a series of indicators to prevent farmed catfish from escaping into the wild. In addition, producers will have to show that catfish seed is sourced from populations already established and naturally reproducing in the receiving waters. But if either catfish species is established, in Bangladesh and India, for example, should seed be sourced from that population only? Or should this be the case only where the species is indigenous? The meeting failed to resolve this question, as well as an additional question of whether seed from one indigenous population could be sourced by producers in an area with a separate indigenous population (see box below). The technical working group on genetics is supposed to resolve the issue before the standards are finalised.

How many populations in the Mekong?

According to MRC Technical Paper No 10, the natural distribution of Sutchi river catfish (Pangasianodon hypophthalmus) and Bocourt’s catfish (Pangasius bocourti) is limited to the Mekong and Chao Phraya Basins. The Mekong has at least two populations of Sutchi river catfish. The larger one is a lower population that extends from the Mekong Delta in Viet Nam to the Tonle Sap Lake and as far upstream as the Khone Falls on the Cambodia-Lao border. An upper population extends upstream from central Lao PDR and northeast Thailand to Myanmar and possibly China as well. There may, however, also be a middle population extending upstream from the Khone Falls to northeast Thailand and central Lao PDR which may overlap genetically with the lower population. And there may also be a fourth population in the Sesan tributary system that extends from northeast Cambodia to the central highlands of Viet Nam, in the case of the Sesan and Srepok rivers, and to southern Lao PDR and central Vietnam in the case of the Sekong. As for Bocourt’s catfish, the Mekong probably has two distinct populations. One, extending from the delta in Viet Nam to central Lao PDR and northeast Thailand, may comprise two sub-populations with a degree of genetic overlap. The other extends from the area around Vientiane and Nongkhai to northern parts of Lao PDR and Thailand.

According to WWF, more than 600 people have been involved in the dialogue including hundreds of small-scale farmers in Viet Nam and Bangladesh.

Farmers and academics have been the key players. Other stakeholders have included processors, input suppliers, foreign buyers, government agencies and non-governmental organisations. During two public comment periods between April last year and January this year, the dialogue received feedback from more than 300 people. According to a revised timetable adopted at the end of the Can Tho meeting, the standards were scheduled to be finalised by May 25 and released publicly on June 1. The effort to establish global catfish standards coincides with a separate Vietnamese project to develop better management practices for farms in the Mekong Delta (see Catch and Culture, Vol 15, No 3). The better management practices are expected to be finalised in August and are seen as a first step for producers seeking certification for complying with global standards.

Further reading dialogues-pangasius.html

* Mr Starr is editor of Catch and Culture

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