Organic aquaculture

The range of organic products available continues to expand. We can now buy many processed products, a full range of vegetables and fruits, poultry and meat.

Will fish be next? Can fish be farmed organically and are there organic standards for fish?

There is the possibility that fish could fit into "wild harvest" provisions in some Organic Standards. The fishery would need to be suitable for inspection and would have to establish that it was free from contamination and managed sustainably - a difficult task for most existing commercial fisheries. Removal of some feral species, such as Carp, could result in improvements to the ecosystem from which they are removed, and may conform to "wild harvest" standards.

Fish and crustaceans are sensitive to many pesticides. They feed low in the food chain and accumulate residues, and aquatic environments disperse contamination through the whole system, unlike soil, which buffers plants and land animals. Fish farmers therefore are aware of the hazards of agricultural chemicals. Even some botanical poisons, such as "rotenone" or "derris" are very toxic to fish and should not be used close to waterways or dams.

However the aquaculture industry does rely on inputs of antibiotics, medications and disease control products. Would organic growers be permitted to use these products and are there adequate alternatives?

There are certified organic aquaculture operations in Europe, including farmed trout, salmon and other ocean species. One of these, a trout farm, has been promoting its expertise in Australia recently, in an attempt to sell its knowledge of breeding lines and management systems to Australian growers.

Aquaculture production does occur in the latest IFOAM Basic Standards for Production and Processing (November 1998). The standard refers to "carnivorous, omnivorous and herbivorous organisms of all stages grown in any form of enclosures such as earthen ponds, tanks and cages (open or closed)". The Aquaculture chapter has a "draft" status until further consideration of the topic by the IFOAM General Assembly in 2000.

BIO-GRO (New Zealand Biological Producers Council) Organic Production Standards cover Aquaculture, and so does the Standards of the respected Swedish certification organisation, KRAV.

A review of these standards suggest the following general management provisions for certified organic aquaculture:

  • Construction and continued operation of the production units should not adversely affect the environment (including escape of captive species)
  • Testing of water and tissue will be required to screen for contaminants or pollution
  • Oxygen levels in water should be controlled (within the range required by the species concerned)
  • Construction materials and equipment must not contaminate fish or water
  • Breeds should be selected to suit local conditions
  • Genetically engineered breeds are not permitted
  • Natural breeding behaviour and hatching is preferred (hatcheries are allowed)
  • Conversions periods vary from nil for some wild harvest activities (IFOAM), to 6 months (KRAV) or 12 months minimum (BIO-GRO) or the recommendation that it be “at least one life cycle of the organism (IFOAM).
  • Synthetic fertilisers are not permitted
  • Chemical therapeutic products should be largely avoided, but may be permitted for emergency control ("veterinary drugs may only be used if no other justifiable alternative is available" and "prophylactic use of veterinary drugs, except vaccinations in certain cases is not allowed" IFOAM)
  • Vaccinations are allowed if diseases are known to exist and cannot be otherwise controlled, or if they are legally required (GE vaccines are not allowed)
  • Synthetic hormones and growth promoters are not allowed
  • Withholding periods for drugs will be at least twice the conventional requirement (IFOAM)
  • Accurate records of purchases, sales, breeding lines (especially "brought in" stock) and drugs must be kept
  • Breeding for disease resistance, and a variety of other protective actions should be taken to prevent disease
  • Waste products and their management will be considered by the certifier
  • Daylight may be extended artificially, to a maximum of 16 hours (IFOAM)
  • Stock numbers and population density may affect the physiological and ethological needs of the fish and will be limited by the certification agency
  • Temperatures should be kept within an acceptable range for the species concerned, and light or shade provided as appropriate to the species
  • Polyculture (keeping more than one type of species together) is encouraged
  • Natural biological cycles involving micro-organisms, plants and animals should be encouraged
  • The diet should be balanced to the nutritional needs of the organism
  • By-products from certified processing and wild ocean food resources are preferred feed ingredients (generally 100% of the diet with a provision for up to 5% convention in special circumstances)
  • When wild fish are used as feed, the "Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries" (FAO) shall be followed
  • No pure amino acids and no hexane extraction of feed
  • Vitamins, trace elements and supplements shall be from a natural origin
  • No colouring agents are permitted
  • No form of mutilation is permitted
  • Harvesting practices should minimise stress
  • General hygiene (such as daily removal of dead fish) should be good
  • South Australian Organic Oysters
    South Australian Organic Oysters
    Australian standards

    The National Standards for Organic and Bio-Dynamic Produce refers to products from "plants, animals and other cultured organisms". It permits fish purchased at fingerling size to be certified and specifies that no therapeutic uses of veterinary drugs or antibiotics are permitted for organic fish. As there is no individual section on aquaculture, we can presume that the "livestock" requirements apply to fish and other aquatic organisms.

    The NASAA Organic Standards for Agricultural Production also cover "fish and crustacea". They specifically forbid the use of "antibiotics, parasiticides and other synthetic drugs". Fish density must not exceed 10kg/m3 and they must be permitted to form shoals. Non-indigenous fish must be contained and the natural environment should not be harmed by the construction of ponds.

    Some aquaculture operations in Australia are very close to organic. Several organic farmers have experimented with aquaculture, often as a way of using waste or, or efficiently utilising water.

    While investment in the larger fish-farming ventures is very high, there are simple methods available for rearing and finishing fish.

    One very simple system I have seen relied on road kill for food! Kangaroos and other animals collected from the road were hung over the ponds. They soon attracted flies, and when the maggots were sufficiently grown to pupate, they would drop out of the carcass into the water - ideal fish and yabbie food.

    Given the restrictions on therapeutic drugs, good hygiene and quarantine will be essential for organic aquaculture. This includes adequate separation from other properties so that diseases cannot be moved around by escaping yabbies and marron, or by birds and other predators.

    The other essential component is careful attention to physiological needs such as water temperature and diet. As for any other livestock, nutrition and basic needs for shelter and company of other individuals of the same species are the best protection against stress and disease.

    Oyster Baskets at low tide
    Oyster Baskets at low tide
    The future

    We can expect that there will be certified organic aquaculture in Australia before too long. The market for organic fish should support a small local industry, as evidenced by recent certification of abattoir around the country. The export industry is potentially much larger and Japan or other Asian countries are high consumers of fish.

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