Bill More is the Director and Vice President of the Aquaculture Certification Council.

What is your certification effort trying to accomplish and why?

Our certification effort is a process certification and it’s aimed at three main areas. Areas like food safety and addressing sensitive environmental and social issues, are what it’s focused on. The main objective is to make sure that the product is produced through a process. It results in not only being a safe wholesome product, but also one that comes from a system that’s sustainable in terms of environmental sustainability. The major social issues, which face the industry, are being addressed and corrected.

What is the name of your company, again?

We’re the Aquaculture Certification Council.

The Aquaculture Certification Council, the ACC?

The ACC. We actually have only been in operation since January of this year for about nine months now.

Your address is the same as the Global Aquaculture Alliance. In what way are you independent from them?

Our stakeholders, unlike the GAA, come from all sectors of the industry. We have another MGO, the Ocean Trust, as one of our stakeholders. So we actually went out and formed the group. We looked at different people from different industries, different universities, and different MGO organizations. We brought in a group of stakeholders, which came in from all sectors. As a nonprofit organization, the main vision is to basically assist operations, put in the best management practices, and become more sustainable in the way they produce shrimp. We do all of this not only from the standpoint of environmental sustainability, but also with food safety concern, which is a big issue today among consumers.

What are examples of better practices that satisfy environmental criteria?

One is the Mangrove issue. We don’t allow any of our farms to cut Mangroves. If they do cut them they have to mitigate and replace them. For every one that they cut they have to replace three and participate in good environmental stewardship. Another issue is that they can only use larvae coming from hatcheries rather than using wild seed. We’re trying to protect the industry and not over-extrapolate the wild seed. There are also issues relative to sanitation and to the community. We strive to be a good neighbor and not restrict the rights or impair the rights of other people participating in similar industries like charcoal production, fisheries, and other things. So, there are several standards. Of the 12 main standards, there are four community issues, five environmental issues, and three blue safety issues. So it’s a very balanced program including social, environmental, and food safety.

Have you made progress in moving some of these countries towards greater sustainability?

We’ve had real good reception. We started out in the Western Hemisphere last June, and looked and certified forms here. More recently in November, we moved to the Eastern Hemisphere to Bangladesh. We now have a very impressive program that’s called the Seal of Quality program with the Bangladesh industry. That really has taken off and has received a lot of attention from other people in Southeast Asia. The people from China and Vietnam have looked very closely at the program. They have the same problems and needs as the industry in Bangladesh, so it’s really addressing some of their issues. There’s even more interest in certifying to make sure the product is safe to consume.

Most of the active environmentalists have put a lot of pressure on governments to clean up their act, to become more sustainable, and not discharge pollutants in the environment. They’ve tried to get them to stop cutting the Mangroves amongst other issues. There has been very good reception from mainly the farming community. Even from the farmers themselves who are probably the guiltiest of violations of this type. Processing plants don’t have a lot of violations. Sometimes with human rights issues like child labor issues, but the farms are the ones that have really been focused upon. They’re the ones that use antibiotics; they’re the ones that cut the Mangroves. So that’s the area of the most focus right now.

What percentage of shrimp farms is in compliance with the majority of these standards?

There’s no single shrimp farm that’s in compliance with 100% of the standards, but most of them are very close to compliance. With a little help and assistance, they could move very quickly into compliance. In Bangladesh alone there are 140,000 farms. It’s the single most important industry of the country. So if you look at the number of small farms, there are hundreds and hundreds of them in the Eastern Hemisphere. In the Western Hemisphere most of our farms are bigger farms. But in this Hemisphere alone there’s probably close to 5,000, 6,000 shrimp farms in Central America and Upper South America.

Are most of them are in compliance?

Most of them are in compliance with most of the criteria. By country there are always different issues they have to address. Some countries have programs in place already, which in some ways are as tough as some of the standards or codes of practice that are international. Other countries have been very lax installing these programs, so they need more help than people in third world countries. They are obviously much farther behind than the more developed countries. Industries in Brazil and Mexico are well advanced; their practice is very sustainable. They have good management practices. They don’t need as much help as a country like India or Bangladesh requires. China and Vietnam have a lot of issues that have to be resolved. So there’s a big focus on them because they’re such big producers. They can produce at very low prices, so they’re very competitive. But at the same time they’ve been in violation of a lot of environmental issues and social issues which have to be corrected.

What are the social criteria?

The main issues are child labor, taking property rights, minimum wages, health issues, and making sure everyone has fresh water to drink. Many farms don’t offer any fresh water. In the case of some farms, where they live on the farm, there are not adequate living conditions and meals. But most of them evolve around health, safety, and child labor issues.

What are the biggest challenges you face?

The biggest challenges we have right now is to convince the buyers that the people that have made the improvements and produced a better, safer product in a more responsible way, will be rewarded. We may reward with a better price or preference for that type of product. We need to get consumers to be well aware of the safety issues and how the consumers are really the driving force of the market. We need to get to the buyers, for them to work closer with the processors. We must request products that are produced under the best management practices in a more sustainable way and that are safer for the consumer. We’re not having a hard time convincing farmers and processors, or even the hatcheries and feed mills to participate in the program. They need some incentive. Something that gives them advantages in the future. To just be a good environmental company sometimes is not enough, when their neighbor may be doing something that’s not always up to par and at cheaper costs. We have to be able to sell this program to the buyers and get them to commit to it. This is one of our major focuses right now.

Is Thailand supportive, compared with other developing nations?

The industry in Thailand, obviously, is very well developed. They have many small farms, but there are also very large processing plants. The biggest issue that Thailand has to face is the size of the industry. Even though they have their own codes of practice, they really don’t have anyone to police the efforts there. As a result, there have been indiscriminate violations of uses of illegal antibiotics and other things which have led to problems in the industry. The main problem in Thailand is the fact that the product cannot be identified. The farmer sends it to the depot, which then sends it to another depot, and is traded or bought. So you have no idea where the product came from. If you’re trying to trace it, and there is a problem with antibiotics or other issues, you don’t know from where that problem originated. That is one of the biggest issues we face in Thailand. They are so large and they’ve outgrown the infrastructure to really self-regulate themselves.

Can aquaculture relieve poverty, provide jobs, and generally help the community?

There’s no question about that in third world countries; it’s very important to them. Most of farming is not done in Mangroves, or not in areas where you have agricultural activity. It’s done in areas where the land has very little value and where there’s an environmental issue to start with. So in these communities, the traditional fisherman has an even more difficult time of making a living. It has provided a lot of opportunity. For instance, in an operation that I ran in Panama, we employed over 1000 people from a local community. The unemployment in that community before we went there was about 80%. So it’s typical of most communities, because most farming is done in rural areas, where there’s very little job employment.

A lot of people are seasonal workers like in the sugar cane industry. They work about three months out of the year, and then the rest of the year they don’t have any work to do. But in the shrimp industry, when they come in, they provide year ‘round jobs, especially for women. I would say in most aquaculture operations more than 60% of the employees are women, especially in processing plants. Most of these women are single unit families. They earn the only source of income they have. So it’s been really important in third world countries to find employment for women to support their families. It’s one of the important issues that is not emphasized as much. You see a lot of focus on some of the negative sides of displacement of communities, violation of repairing rights, but basically the good things that happen far outweigh those things.

How would you respond to critics that say some fish farms are highly instable?

The main thing is that most of the information that’s published today always focuses on the negative issues instead of the positive issues. If they went to these countries and actually visited these operations they would see that for every one bad farmer there are probably ten good ones out there that are doing things right and are really conscientious about their efforts. People really need to make known some of these efforts rather than concentrating on the cases which are really not more typical on the industry side.

Are the critics right to complain about the problems of over-development?

In some cases where there has been over-development and the industry has had to cut back and white-spot has devastated a lot of the industry. Probably in those cases the situation is pretty desperate, and there are a lot of unemployed people. But in the other countries where you do have sustainable industry, they’ve gone through white-spot. They’ve been able to come back and manage it, and those industries have grown again. For example, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Honduras are all recovered from white-spot. If you look at the number of people, their working force is increasing everyday. So if you talk to those same people today, versus two years ago when they had white-spot, I think you’d hear a different story being told. Thailand is an example of a country that has over-developed. Now that they have this development, a lot of farms are just not sustainable. They can’t make a profit. They’ve had to shut down, and that has influenced the local economy. There are a lot of other countries where you don’t see that situation, in fact quite the contrary it’s a reverse situation now.

What about the recent Thai Code of Conduct? It’s voluntary, so is it effective?

That’s exactly right, it is voluntary. There’s no way to enforce it. They don’t have the people to audit, to make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to do, and to follow up. There’s no one to assist the farmer in realizing the importance of following the codes of practice or that he’s going to benefit from it. The amount of people they have to put in that effort is just too small. That’s where certification groups like the ACC and others can come in and help. Not only do they help them with certification, but they help put the practice into place in auditing and monitoring. This makes sure that they follow the practices. Once they do that they’ll benefit from them and you don’t have to tell them again. The codes of practice in Thailand were good codes of practice. They just don’t have enough people and enough teeth behind them to enforce them. We are talking about a large industry with just a few people to assist; a lot of people just don’t get the help they need.

Is your certification for shrimp looking positive?

Overall the outlook is positive. There are still a lot of countries that need a lot of work, but the overall look especially in the Western Hemisphere is recovering well. The Eastern Hemisphere will be a little bit slower. China and Vietnam need a lot of help. The real determining factor is how fast they can start to put their practice into place, and become good citizens that participate in the world with the world environmental issues on hand.

The GAA helped create the ACC, but now you’re independent. Can you explain that?

Yes, the GAA is one of their subcommittees. The industry needs a lot of help in terms of improving certification, improving the way we produce shrimp, and addressing the environmental and social issues. The charter of the GAA and stakeholders wasn’t really in the function of what they could do within the framework. They wouldn’t be a true third-party certification if they did it themselves. So they helped to form a group of their stakeholders who came and put together the company. Then they asked to bring in people from the outside to run the company. We use independent certifiers. None of them are affiliated with the GAA, and most of them are from a commercial sector. I was a member of the GAA through my company and the production business. So it’s completely independent. We do have a couple of people on our board of directors who are also associated with the GAA, but the majority of our stake holders are not associated with it. They had a big influence because the codes of practice and all that we started with came from the GAA. They were developed by Doctor Boyd who acts as a consultant for them. But we’re completely independent from them. They’ve allowed us to use the codes to establish good practices.

The biggest importer of shrimp remains Thailand?

Thailand is number one, and China has some potential to catch up but Thailand is still number one. In the Western Hemisphere Brazil has taken over and passed Ecuador as the number one exporter. But I think of the top five, four of them are from the Eastern Hemisphere. In the East, China and Vietnam are really producing a lot of product, but Thailand is number one.

If Thailand is the number one supplier of farmed shrimp, how does a consumer avoid the problems of farmed shrimp from Thailand in their buying choices?

That is one of the major issues that has to be addressed, because obviously buying such a large volume of product in the market place — Thailand gets a lot of publicity. But there are a lot of good producers in Thailand and they’re doing things right. For every bad producer you’ve probably got four or five that are trying to do things right and become more sustainable; they’re trying to put good practices in for many reasons. A lot of it just has to do with making more money, more profit for themselves. But in making more profit, they’ve had to become more sensitive to the issues and have tried to become better environmentalists. They have become more sensitive to the community issues indirectly, but regardless they’re still addressing these issues; they’ve had to in order to survive. You’ve got countries like China and Vietnam who are creeping up on them. They can produce cheaper and they’ve really had to become aware of what they have to do to maintain that leadership position.

Would you say that the average consumer thinks that buying farmed shrimp is helping ocean habitats by not contributing to the by-catch problem of trolling?

This has become such a sensitive issue at the consumer level. It’s the consumer that’s really driving this point home and the buyers now have to be very sensitive. When they buy a product, they want to know if it comes from an operation that is safe to consume. The buyers are spending a lot of money testing products from Thailand. Almost every container coming out from that part of the world gets testing from independent third party laboratories. We want to feel comfortable that that type of testing is more reliable. So they’re spending a lot of money to make sure that the product they do buy is safe. When they have to spend money they’re going to pay less money to the Thai people who are producing the product. So the Thai’s are very sensitive to that issue and they’re trying to clean up. They have an image to maintain in the market. They must make sure that they are not in violation because that can cost them money in the market place.

Do you have anything to add?

You might want to take a look at what is happening in Brazil or Mexico with the industries there, because they’ve learned from the people in Thailand. When they built their operations, they built them to eliminate some of the mistakes that were done in other parts of the world, especially in Northern Mexico. If you go there and look at their farm operations, they have put everything in place. Where other people have made mistakes, they have taken and learned from it and they’ve built very sustainable operations. These were built in such a way that they can address environmental issues. New countries, that are expanding the business and where it’s really growing, you should take a look at what their doing. They’ve learned their lesson from what’s happening in some of the operations that have been around a long time. The white-spot disease in the Eastern Hemisphere was almost devastated. It took them three or four years to recover. Many operations did not recover. Near 1999 it hit the Western Hemisphere, and five years later it’s beginning to recover.

It has forced the industry to take new steps to preclude this from happening again, or to learn how to live with it and manage it. They’ve learned that they have to protect the environment and many of the problems that caused white-spot were induced by farms discharging their own wastes. Hundreds of farms were re-pumping each other’s water. The environment became overwhelmed by diseases and became a major issue. The shrimp really didn’t stand a chance. So if you improve the environment you reduce the stress on the animal, so I think we’ve learned a lot. The farmers have learned a lot from what’s happened in the Eastern Hemisphere. They have been able to apply that to different parts of the world. Thailand still has a very sustainable industry and they will continue to lead the world for some time, but there are a lot of other countries that are beginning to catch up. They have put less focus on the environmental issues because they are addressing those up front instead of waiting for some regulator to come and tell them — you have to clean up your issue.

What are Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, China, and Brazil, learning?

A lot of them still don’t have the resources in place or technical systems to apply and expedite the process. They are certainly learning from them; they are watching and trying to see the mistakes they have made and learn from them. The social issues are major issues in Bangladesh. The environmental issues are really not a major issue in Bangladesh, but they are serious issues in China and Vietnam, so there is a different set of issues you have to address. I’m sure they have learned from Thailand, everyone watches Thailand; they are trying not to repeat some of the mistakes they were making.