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The business of sustainable salmon

Gabrielle Walker
Gabrielle Walker
The business of sustainable salmon

In April 2017 Gabrielle wrote this piece for the Huffington Post about a new sustainability initiative among a group of enlightened CEOs in the salmon farming industry. 

Flying over the scattered islands and sheltered bays of the Patagonian archipelago in Chile, you can spot faint lines in the water, arranged in branching grids like the teeth of a two-sided comb. Down at water level they resolve themselves into salmon farms: networks of floating walkways between which silver fish leap lazily out of the water in massive pens hemmed around with nets. These Chilean salmon farms, and similar ones in countries such as Canada, New Zealand and Norway, form the basis of an industry that was born only a few decades ago and has since grown at an incredible pace. They are the highly prized apex of a global aquaculture industry that is providing increasing amounts of the protein on our plates.

Because their product is high-end, and because they also tend to be in beautiful and remote places, salmon farms attract plenty of critics. They have also had their environmental challenges, particularly in the past when the industry was young. And yet, we have 7.5 billion people to feed, and more on the way. Although we don’t go out and hunt wild cows for the beef industry we are currently doing the equivalent with seafood, and denuding the oceans in the process. Sustainable wild catch will be part of the answer, but it’s nowhere near enough. So we will need to farm the oceans. The World Resources Institute estimates that aquaculture production will have to double at least, by 2050, if we are to meet the world’s needs for protein. “The future of seafood in the world has to be aquaculture,” says Jason Clay, Senior Vice President in charge of markets at the WWF. “But it has to be done better.”

Enter the Global Salmon Initiative, a collaboration of companies from around the world that was created in 2012, and whose members produce more than half of all farmed salmon. Their stated aim is for the farms of all their members to achieve a “gold standard” certification for sustainability—one that’s so stringent that it is endorsed by the WWF. The idea is to improve the sustainability of farmed salmon across the entire sector, and hence to earn the social license to grow. This, they believe, will allow them to play a greater role in satisfying the world’s increasing appetite for protein—to the benefit of all players.

Avrim Lazar, who initially brought the group together and now heads its secretariat, has plenty of experience in helping other industries improve their sustainability. He was previously Canadian policy lead for the Kyoto climate agreement, and as CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada successfully brokered a deal between its members and a host of environmental groups including Greenpeace. He says that, in his experience, the real challenge is to get change at both speed and scale. And for that, he says, the companies involved have to do three important things: set ambitious goals that can be measured; be radically transparent about their practices; and share solutions very widely among themselves so that their collective progress accelerates. That’s what the GSI is now trying to do.

Like the relatively young salmon farming industry, the GSI has had its difficulties, but is also beginning to have some marked successes. I’ve been working with the group over the past few months, and I’m especially interested in the endeavour not just for what it means for the farmed salmon industry, but also for what other sectors might learn from their experience. Many large companies are beginning to realise that it’s not enough for them to make their own practices sustainable; they also need to bring the rest of their sector with them. But collaboration is hard. And the lessons that the GSI has been learning, as well as potentially transforming farmed salmon, might well start to make even wider waves in the rest of the world.

“The biggest impact of the GSI is going to be on the rest of the food industry,” says Clay. “This is an example of how a few CEOs and their companies can change an entire sector, in a very short amount of time.”

A Common Reputation

One of the initial motivations for forming the coalition was the mismatch between the efforts towards sustainability already taking place among many salmon farmers and the often negative perception of the outside world. Salmon farmers are keen to point out that their industry has inherently strong environmental credentials. It produces only a quarter as many greenhouse emissions per kg of product as chicken farming, a sixth of the emissions of pork, and a thirtieth of the emissions of beef. Then because the fish swim in the deep, the surface area used for a fish farm is tiny compared to terrestrial ones. (According to Grant Rosewarne, CEO of New Zealand King Salmon, to get the same revenue as a 1.5-hectare salmon farm, you would need nearly 90,000 hectares for cattle.)

What’s more, the best players in the business have been working for decades on other environmental issues associated, for example, with how the fish are fed and treated for illnesses, and many have made significant improvements. But this message hasn’t made it to the public arena. “I think the industry hasn’t been good at communicating how sustainable it actually is,” says Alf Helge Aarskog, who is CEO of Marine Harvest, one of the world’s largest producers of farmed salmon, and was one of the founding members of the GSI. “We are not good at telling stories, and we find it very difficult to get a voice in the public debate.”

This might sound like special pleading, but Clay told me the same thing. While the GSI members are gradually improving their sustainability practices, he says, many NGOs are still using data that is years out of date. And that’s not unusual. “I have started a couple of dozen roundtables on standards for different species,” he says. “Inevitably what you find is that academic researchers and NGOs are using data that’s at least 10 years old. Real time innovations are not written up by businesses because they are not authors or academics.”

He’s right. I have heard respected academics and responsible journalists throwing around numbers claiming that it takes 3kg or more of fish feed to make 1kg of salmon. The true level is now between 1 and 2 kg according to the World Resources Institute, and it’s falling rapidly. (Among GSI members, it’s less than 1.3kg.) Some experimental feed on the market even avoids fish meal all together.

There’s a good economic reason for this progression, aside from the environmental considerations. If you are one of the far-sighted farmers who want their business to last, and to grow, you need to know that your food supply is not suddenly going to disappear. Stripping the oceans of wild fish to feed farmed fish would be bad both for the planet and for business. “It’s not a trade-off,” says Per Grieg, co-chair of the GSI and Chairman of Grieg Seafood based in Norway. “If you don’t manage your environment properly, it directly hits your bottom line.”

Sady Delgado is the other co-chair of the GSI, and runs Los Fiordos in Chile. “My company is family owned, and I have a mandate from my board and the owner to maximise the profits on the long-term not on the short-term,” he says. “GSI fits with the way we think.” The workers on Los Fiordos farms in Patagonia have a similar mandate to keep their animals free of stress. Out on the floating gantries, the men and women with the rubber boots on the ground are watching constantly for even the slightest change in behaviour. They know these fish well – the way they leap into the air to gulp down air to fill their swim bladders when they’re feeling mellow, the excited way they surface in their thousands if they hear the salmon in another cage being fed, the speed that they swim at normally and the first signs of any sluggishness or discomfort. There are sensors monitoring oxygen levels and water temperature ready to sound the alarm at the slightest hint of trouble, but the farmers still watch their fish in person. “What’s important is not what happens to the water. It’s what happens to the fish,” one farmer told me. “The fish tell you what they need”.

What the fish need—and what the best producers deliver—is a comfortable, natural environment, free of stress and disease. But partly because the industry is made up of engineers who are more focused on solving their problems than publishing their findings, and partly because, in the unsubtle world of social media, the best and worst players tend to be lumped together, even the most environmentally responsible operators have struggled to get this message across to the public.

New Zealand King Salmon is a relatively small producer of very high end king salmon for many of the world’s top restaurants. Their farms all meet very stringent environmental standards and they were generally regarded as a poster child for responsible industry. So, says CEO Grant Rosewarne, they were astonished when, having sought permission to expand their farms around eight years ago, they were suddenly confronted with activists accusing them of being environmental villains. “People had found derogatory stuff about salmon farming on the internet,” says Rosewarne. “They were issues that don’t even affect us directly. But we couldn’t grow because of the reputation of salmon globally.”

So they joined the GSI, both to help improve practices across the board, and to help the industry tell its story to the world. “There’s so much misinformation. We tell people ‘go and look at GSI’”

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Clay is particular keen to support initiatives that lift the poorest environmental players across an entire sector rather than making a few good ones even better, which is one reason he is enthusiastic about the GSI. “I think it’s unique globally for any sector to come together in a pre-competitive way like this,” he says. “The best performers realised that the whole industry is going to be judged by newspaper headlines and social media, and that they had to move the bottom ones up.”

Continuous improvement

That’s where the bulk of the GSI approach comes in: improving what they do and showing continuous progress towards an ambitious goal. “Sustainability is not just about telling the story, it’s also about changing practices,” says Ricardo Garcia, CEO of Chilean producer Camanchaca, and one of the founding members of the GSI. “The idea of this group is to share strategies to make the operating model more sustainable. Also we need to be observable, registrable, provable – we need the certification to demonstrate that we have genuinely improved.”

For that reason, the group decided early on that, as a condition of membership, all parties had to agree to a goal of certifying all their farms to the Aquaculture Stewardship Council’s standard for salmon. This wasn’t without its challenges. The ASC standard was created over many painful years of negotiating between a wide range of companies, NGOs and activists. It has more than 130 requirements and initially there were those in the industry who said that achieving it would be impossible. However, others were convinced that they needed to reach for the ASC goal in order to be credible, and in the end the target stood.

But how to put it into practice? Lazar says he has learned that making issues very concrete is an effective antidote to ideology, and one of his first acts was to make a vast spreadsheet of the ASC requirements and send it out to all the members. Which of these criteria, they were asked, did they consider to be impossible; which might be possible in a few years if there were more research and shared learning, or could they potentially do with some effort; and which they were already doing?

By this useful exercise, the number of “problem” criteria was whittled down to seven. A few conversations and requests for clarifications from the ASC later, the number of remaining major challenges was now only two. Admittedly these two still pose a serious challenge to many in the industry from an environmental perspective: how to make feed sustainable, and how to find environmentally sound ways to deal with disease. However, as Lazar points out, these are technical rather than ideological issues. “Our sustainability challenges are not problems of moral fibre or intent,” he says. “They are basically about innovation and technology.”

To foster that innovation and develop the technology, the GSI decided to invite new associate members from both the feed and pharmaceutical industries, and create task forces dedicated to addressing the challenges.

Einar Wathne, President and CEO of feed company Cargill’s global aquaculture business, stepped in to chair the feed taskforce. Like many of the participants in the GSI, Wathne is personally passionate about the project. He also notes a strong economic interest in a successful outcome for the collaboration. “The industry has been very cyclical over many years – with variable prices and biological incidents that have created instability,” he says. “Sustainability, transparency all the work that the GSI is doing creates trust among customers – which leads to more stable demand. It gives predictability and that will benefit us, the suppliers.”

And so far, he is impressed by the experience. “GSI has got much further than any kind of collaboration tried in the industry before. It’s an important success story. If it failed now, the whole industry would suffer.”

For the past two years GSI members have also been participating in a larger set of feed dialogues under the auspices of the ASC, which has been focusing on how to improve the sustainable use of feed ingredients and introduce a scheme to ensure all ASC ingredients are sustainably certified. The GSI has also been working separately on finding an alternative for the fish oil that allows salmon to develop its famous omega-3 fatty acids, with their associated benefits for health, while reducing use of marine stocks. Before the salmon industry came along, fish oil mainly went into paint and margarine, destroying the health omega 3 in the process. Now at least it’s being used for something that can have health benefits for human consumers. But to be truly sustainable, the industry needs to wean itself off its dependency on fish oil. One promising route is to produce the omega 3 from algae, although industrial scale production is a few years away.

The other major taskforce overseen by the GSI covers the issue of disease, specifically problems with a parasite called sea lice and a bacterial infection called SRS which has been a challenge in Chilean farms in recent years. This raises the vexed question of the use of antibiotics in the water, which is something that raises a red flag among both campaigners and the public at large. In some ways that’s unfair. Unlike on many terrestrial farms, salmon farmers use antibiotics only to treat illnesses, and never to boost production.

However, it’s never a good idea to rely on antibiotics, and GSI companies acknowledge that they need to reduce their use. They are starting to work on this through a combination of encouraging research into new vaccines by pharmaceutical companies and trialling different management practices in the farms themselves. Grieg notes that Norwegian farms, which do not currently suffer from SRS and therefore use very little antibiotics, can still not afford to rest on their laurels. “I have been in this industry long enough to know that if you do the basics wrong there will be another disease,” he says.

And in spite of misgivings from some of its members, who were feeling bruised from outside attacks, the GSI has also insisted on transparency, publishing openly on their website the quantity of antibiotics being used by each member company in each location, as well as a host of other environmental indicators. Anyone can look. The idea is to draw an initial line in the sand and then show what progress is being made year on year. Says Clay “Their database reporting on progress against key environmental impacts shows continuous improvement over time. That’s absolutely brilliant—making it available to the public, especially to those people who are interested in facts rather than just social media.”

“Gaining people’s confidence is extremely important,” says Delgado, “and the only way to do this is by transparency. That is why we make the sustainability reports and put the information out there. Today a lot of people don’t trust the industry, but I think slowly the GSI is helping to change that.”

Doris Soto agrees. She was Senior Aquaculture Officer at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation when they signed an MOU with the GSI in 2014, and now that she has left the FAO she continues to watch with interest from the sidelines. “There has been a historical lack of transparency, or perhaps simply poor communications skills, which have been bad for the industry and led them to be blamed for things that are very probably not their fault,” she says. “The GSI has done a lot in terms of sharing information. They are trying to be transparent– and that’s very important. If you tell the truth whether bad or good, you can move forward.”

Success factors

To date 114 farms have reached the ASC standards and 31 more are in the pipeline. The latest status of the project is perpetually on view at the GSI’s website, along with the groups mission and goals. That shared view of where the group is collectively heading is one reason for the success so far. “Not everyone shares the motivations,” says Delgado, “but we all share the goal and together we are a big power. If my company wants to make a change in industry it is very hard. But if more than half the industry move in that direction we can change the world.”

Marta Gameiro from Elanco Animal Health, who was part of the GSI’s biosecurity task force for several years, thinks it helps that there was already a predisposition to collaborate through the nature of the industry itself. “There has always been a need for collaboration in fish farming, because the ocean is so connected. If you don’t align on practices with your neighbours in surrounding farms, you can’t get rid of any diseases.” Grieg agrees. “You share the water,” he says. “And you feel that much more as a fish farmer than as a fisherman or as part of a land-based industry.”

Also, the industry is relatively consolidated with a few large players – which makes it easier to get a manageable number of CEOs round the table. It’s perhaps telling for the success that all the CEOs involved are also very personally committed, and the rate of attendance at face to face meetings is very high. Wathne sees this as key. “In large organisations there are a lot of initiatives that come from the outside and they always need to fight against day to day focus and tasks. When CEOs stand up and say we are going to work through GSI that has an effect on priorities within the whole organisation.”

To Lazar, creating that forum has a benefit outside the immediate challenges facing the industry. It’s surprisingly rare in any sector, he says, to have a table round which CEOs can exchange information and ideas with their peers in a safe and neutral pre-competitive setting. “As well as dealing with sustainability we’re also creating a community. The sustaining vehicle of a table round which you can talk to each other is already half the value. Whether you’re facing a threat, or an opportunity, you can get together and deal with it.”

This and many other lessons from the GSI could be usefully applied outside the field of salmon farming. Today many other sectors are similarly coming up against resource challenges either because of over-exploitation, climate change, regulations/legislation or reputational issues affecting social licence to operate. Soto says that when she was at the FAO she was advocating a similar approach with tilapia, shrimp, sea bass and she still hopes this might happen. Salmon is a relatively small proportion of global aquaculture, and taking the same approach to the bulk players could have a huge global benefit she says.

Clay is also optimistic about the chances that the GSI approach could spread. “Even in industries that are less consolidated such as shrimp and cocoa there are always pinch points such as processing plants, which can act as cascade points where you can create a lot of change,” he says. “The model does have legs and I think it can apply in lots of settings.”

And in the end, that’s perhaps the thing that many of the GSI players are most proud of. Says Delgado: “In GSI we have proved that very different companies can sit at the same table, look for the common goal, and work together, forgetting egos and finding solutions. If people could do the same in other industries, we could all grow faster and cheaper and the whole world could be more sustainable.”