Fiction vs. Reality

A reply to the ASC’s response to criticism of its Shrimp Aquaculture Standard

On Principle 1

Criticism on Principle 1: The reference to the national law is weak. Often quality of national regulations is lacking as well as enforcement.

Reality: As a basic starting point, any farm seeking ASC certification must comply with national and local laws and be legal in the region where it operates.

The ASC knows what needs to be done. This was never in doubt. Unfortunately, they don’t know how to do it.

Our criticism was directed at their approach to finding a solution:
  • The ASC did not seek out inputs from people who understood local and national environmental laws.
  • They did not attempt to compile a set of documentation that the auditors would use as a reference, documentation that would include:
    • Applicable environmental laws, and permits/documents that could be accepted as indicators for compliance
    • Applicable land-usage laws and acceptable permits/documents etc.
    • Applicable company law and acceptable permits/documents etc., to establish definitions of terms like “farm”, “business” and so on.
  • Given that a checklist or reference documentation did not exist, the did not require that their auditors have appropriate qualifications in these matters.
  • The audits of farms were conducted by people unqualified to determine if a farm was compliant under Principle 1.
Why does our criticism remain valid?

In Bangladesh, ASC’s certified auditors recommended that “Kuliarchar Shrimp Farm” be certified compliant to the ASC Shrimp Standard 1.0. The auditors did not know which documents to check. They did not ask for these documents. What happened was:

  • There is no entity called the “Kuliarchar Shrimp Farm”. There is no “legal” owner of such a farm. The land on which this farm exists belongs to one party; the holder of the lease was a second party; the applicant for certification was a third-party.
  • The owner of the land, the holder of the lease and the applicant did not know each other.
  • The produce is not traceable (more on that later)
  • The auditor inspected documentation at the premises of the applicant and supplied (as documentation) data relevant to the applicant and not “Kuliarchar Shrimp Farm.”
  • When we raised an objection, a second audit was ordered, which threw up more irrelevant documentation.
  • The shrimp farm was recommended for certification.
  • The recommendation was withdrawn six months after we objected.

Yes. National and Local laws are important, but the ASC did not bother with the details.

  • How is the auditor expected to check for compliance with national or local law if he or she is not supplied with a checklist of valid documents?
  • The ASC Standard does not mention Customary Law, which is extremely relevant in the countries where shrimp is farmed.

Principle 1 should be drafted by a team of specialists with the knowledge of legal, environmental and land laws in each producer nation. However, instead of accepting their lack of knowledge on the subject, the ASC makes the bombastic claim of “going beyond national and local laws to produce a more rigorous standard.”

As it stands, it cannot be said that certified ASC farms are compliant with national and local laws simply because the auditor is not given guidelines for what to check or how to verify the relevance, validity and authenticity of the documentation that is presented to him or her.

Our Response:

Sorry. The ASC is clearly out of its depth on this subject. Their incompetence does not allow them to understand that they are not competent enough to draft standards and audit guidelines for Principle 1.

On Principle 2

The ASC’s response on Principle 2 says:

Reality: Within the ASC Shrimp Standard, an outline for the B-EIA is given in Appendix 1 (p.113-123). Within this comprehensive appendix, guidance is given on qualification of the assessment team, the methodology to be used (including the specific issues that have to be addressed) and guidance on auditing the performed B-EIA.

What it fails to mention is that the auditors need not verify the accuracy, robustness or quality of the data gathering in a B-EIA report. The instruction is explicit. This must be kept in mind when assessing the ASC’s response:

Reality: This charge is also inaccurate. According to indicator 2.2.2 of the ASC Shrimp Standard, farms are not allowed (with our without a permit) to be constructed in mangrove ecosystems, natural wetlands or areas of ecological importance as determined by the B-EIA, after May 1999 (date of Ramsar Resolution VII.1).

For farms built or permitted before May 1999, farmers are required to compensate/offset impacts via rehabilitation as determined by the B-EIA, or the national/state/local authority plans/list, or 50% of the affected ecosystem (whichever is greater).

Therefore, farms applying for certification may be categorised as follows:

Case 1 (Farms built or permitted after 1999)

The ASC Standard

  • does not define “built” or “construction”
  • does not define “expansion”
  • does not define or explain what documentation qualifies as a valid permit
  • does not explicitly define distinctions between a farm, the business-entity that owns and/or operates the farm, and the applicant — the person or legal-entity that has applied for certification.
  • specifically allows for some kinds of construction to be done after 1999.
  • definitions of the “scope” and “bounds” of certification are arbitrary—a part of a larger farm may be certified independently of the rest of the farm. Conversely, a cluster of farms may be certified based on certification of an arbitrary set of ponds inside the area.

These are important definitions that should be in the standard. Without these definitions, the standard is useless when auditing compliance to its criteria. This might sound pedantic, but is illustrated with the following examples:

  • Farms are allowed to construct certain facilities by clearing mangroves after 1999 and the ASC is happy to certify them. (Explicit exception)
  • It is acceptable to the ASC if companies expand old farms into new areas if they acquired permits before 1999. (“Expansion” is not defined)
  • Mangroves have been felled at Ramsar #1000 by a shrimp company that is certified by the ASC. The mangroves that were felled belong to the farm, but they were not felled for the use of the area of the farm being certified (“Scope” and “bounds” are arbitrary)
  • The auditor did not have clear instructions of what to do in this case and recommended certification. (No guidelines)
Case 2 (Farm built or permitted before 1999)

For farms built or permitted before May 1999, farmers are required to compensate/offset impacts via rehabilitation as determined by the B-EIA, or the national/state/local authority plans/list, or 50% of the affected ecosystem (whichever is greater).

There are environmental and social problems associated with the CP farm complexes in Indonesia that are not addressed by the ASC Standard at all, but we leave that aside for now. Our criticism of this outrageous clause (2.2.2) goes back to 2010. It is easy to dismiss, as follows:

The CP Group operates two ASC-certified farming complexes in Indonesia. According to the ASC’s audit report, both have permits dated before 1999. Therefore, the farming complexes should have rehabilitated 50% or greater of the affected ecosystem, otherwise they would not be certified.

  • Where is this area located?
  • Did the auditor visit the area?
  • Will the ASC provide measurable, independently verifiable evidence of the rehabilitation?

Making this information available would earn the ASC good publicity. However, when asked to make rehabilitation information public for all certified farms, the ASC refuses. It is naive to say that since rehabilitation work ought to have been done, it must have been done.

We suspect that rehabilitation data is withheld because the ASC genuinely do not have it and that they do not want to know about it.

Why does our criticism remain valid?

The principle problem is that the ASC is not accountable to anyone. When we raised an objection about the Kuliarchar Shrimp Farm in Bangladesh, the ASC haughtily forced us through a bureaucratic process of approaching the certification team (Bureau Veritas) and then the accredited certification body (ASI). After six months, the certification recommendation was quietly revoked. Not a word of apology or even a hint of contrition. Only after we began auditing ASC-certified farms did we fully really the extent of the ASC’s deliberate ignorance of the state of farms certified under their standard.

Someone has to call the ASC’s bluff and we do:

  • Let the ASC publish records of rehabilitation carried out by the CP farm complexes in Indonesia and the Deli Seajoy farms in Honduras,
  • We will investigate the matter and publish our results.

In the second part of the response, the ASC says:

Reality: The ASC standard on this is clear. It is the task of the auditor to verify the replanting of mangroves. This is defined in the ASC Shrimp Audit Manual, indicators 2.2.2.B and 2.2.2.C. If a farm does not replant the required area of mangrove forest, it would lead to a major non-conformity, which halts certification.

Note that the word “rehabilitation” has been replaced by “replanting”:

  • Replanting does not mean “rehabilitation.” Rehabilitation (loosely called “restoration,” which is strictly not the same either) requires a carefully planned series of activities that result in the sustainable regeneration of a mangrove ecosystem.
  • Replanting is simply the act of planting mangroves
  • The ASC changed their standard allowing farms to “replant” as a means of fulfilling their responsibilities under 2.2.2.
  • According to the ASC natural regeneration should be counted as rehabilitation.

It is important to emphasise these facts in lay-person’s terms:

Equating rehabilitation to replanting is like treating a bullet wound with a band-aid. Given the auditor’s guidelines, the 50% clause and the natural regeneration clause:

  • the person evaluating the treatment need not be a doctor, he can be an accountant
  • two bullet wounds may be treated with one band-aid
  • if the first bullet wound is gangrenous, but the second shows signs of healing, then the band-aid is not required.

Rehabilitation of a complex ecosystem can take a decade of concerted effort and care.

Compliance of farms can be investigated independently if the ASC releases data on rehabilitation work that has been done. If the ASC will, on record, state that they will revoke certification for all farms that have not rehabilitated 50% or greater of the affected ecosystem, we will evaluate the site and publish our results on a public forum.

Our Response:

If the ASC had insisted that only farms outside the intertidal region would be certified, we would have supported them. They refused to do so. Their response to criticism on Principle 2 has been to deny accountability, hide important data and hide behind jargon. There is a lot more to say and question but we close this subject by re-stating that allowing farms to operate inside the intertidal zone, in mud-flats and salt flats, or in natural wetlands is destructive and cannot be considered responsible.

On Principle 3

The ASC’s response says:

Criticism on Principle 3: Good that there is an ask for a p-SIA, but again not clear whether there is enough qualified personnel and no qualifications specified.

Reality: This charge is untrue. Within the ASC Shrimp Standard, an outline for the p- SIA is given is Appendix 2 on p.124-144. Within this appendix, required qualifications are given regarding the assessment team, the methodology to be used — including the specific issues that have to be addressed — and auditing guidance on the performed p-SIA.

Yes. There are comprehensive guidelines for the p-SIA in the appendix. The guidelines suffer from the same imprecise drafting that plagues the rest of the Standard. However, the central criticism was not answered — that the p-SIA does not allow the local community to register Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC). It does not allow them to register dissent, either—the right to say “No.”

  • The p-SIA (participatory social impact assessment) is conducted by the owners of the shrimp farm. The p-SIA was supposed to be a check to ensure that people in the community have space to communicate their dissent to the consumer and to the auditor of the farm. Yet, the p-SIA is conducted by the farm owners. They choose the people that attend the p-SIA, they choose the location and, essentially, control what inputs are available to the auditor to assess the social impacts of the farm being certified. This is unacceptable.
  • For years we have asked the ASC to publish p-SIA reports. The ASC has started publishing these only recently, for a very small number of farms. We want to see the p-SIA documents for the large farm complexes in Indonesia, Ecuador and Honduras.
  • Auditors need not verify the accuracy, robustness or quality of the data gathering.
  • Matters such as “conflict resolution” are poorly defined, e.g., a conflict is deemed resolved if any of the interested parties takes the matter to court.

Criticism on Principle 3 (continued): Local communities did provide input to the development of the standard (back in 2011), though there voice wasn’t heard in the final version of what is known as the ASC shrimp standard

Reality: This characterisation is misleading. The development of the shrimp standard pre-dates the existence of the ASC. However, we understand that the final standard reflected an unprecedented number of consultations with the local communities, researchers, and the industry. Although not every suggestion made it fully into the final standard, the result of the years of work is a best in class standard that has accepted globally. It is also important to note that no standard is perfect. ASC has committed to evolving all of their standards over time; more feedback will be actively solicited and may be reflected in the next version.

We stand by the charge. We are part of a global network with NGOs that works on issues of shrimp aquaculture and the rights of local resource users. Our version of the events that led to the ASC Standard is as follows:

NGOs in producer nations state, on record, that their inputs were not sought and that the voice of local communities was ignored. This was brought to the attention of SHAD/GSC many times over. Protest letters as well as detailed criticism were sent by some NGOs including us—but that is not the same as saying that consultations were made with local communities. The ASC’s predecessors did not meet representatives of local communities. We’ve seen the so-called “aquaculture dialogues”. We were there. The venues were packed with shrimp industry representatives.

If the ASC believes an unprecedented number of consultations were carried out and that their standard is best in its class, they are free to do so.

Why does our criticism remain valid?

The ASC wants to be perceived as a multi-stakeholder non-profit organisation as has been trying to sway public opinion to this end. However, it is a merely a business trying hard to sell its product. There is nothing wrong with that at all. However, if it wants to be seen as a multi-stakeholder entity, its activities must be held to higher ethical standards than that of a business. The ASC should use FPIC and p-SIA not as marketing-buzzwords, but because it believes in them.

Our Response:

FPIC is a central guideline for social standards. The ASC’s standard and audit guidelines do not embrace the principles of FPIC. As it stands, the p-SIA under the ASC Standard is a marketing gimmick.

On Principle 4

Criticism on Principle 4: The requirements on social issues are based on ILO which is OK, but they only apply to people with a contract (but not the ones without a contract). Reality: This criticism does not apply to ASC certified farms. Under Indicator 4.1.1 and 4.2.1, ASC certification requires that all farms have signed (and understood) contracts of all their employees. Workers without a contract are not allowed; this also applies to sub-contracted workers.

Again, the devil is in the details.

  • Most people employed by a shrimp farm are not classified as workers. These employees (even if they work on the farm) are not required to have a contract. They are not entitled to any of the rights available to a hired worker.
  • Contract farming (including farms where the principal contractor has sub-leased the contract) is a completely different business model. It is widely used in Indonesia. The ASC’s Standard shows a poor understanding of the legal and commercial aspects of contract farming — as seen in the case of Principle 1.
  • The Standard specifies a contract farming agreement should be “fair” without specifying audit guidelines to determine the fairness of that contract. The auditor merely checks for the existence of a contract.
  • Minimum wages for “workers” are determined not be national and local laws, but by the owner of the farm. So much for going beyond national and local law!

The first draft of the standard had proposed a living wage for all workers. The shrimp industry representatives on the Drafting Committee (the GSC/ShAD) would have none of it. The clause was changed to “minimum wage” and then, finally, to “minimum wage, as applicable.” Only a special category of worker called the “permanent worker” (not the same as what they define a “hired worker”) is allowed what the ASC calls a “fair wage”. Needless to say, the terms of this “fair wage” are not defined.

The imprecision in the use and definition of important terms makes Principle 4 incoherent and difficult to audit.

a) Criticism on Principle 4 (continued): Child labour is possible under the standard, because the requirements only apply to persons with a contract.

Reality: This is strictly not the case. No child labour is allowed under ASC certification as 1) all farms must comply with all local and regional laws including those against child labour and; 2) in regions where there may be no specific laws on this matter, ASC standards set ILO guidelines as a minimum working age.

b) Criticism on Principle 4 (continued): The requirements do not apply to people working in shrimp factories ad the people fishing for broodstock etc.

Response ASC: The ASC Farm Standards are just that — farm standards. This charge is correct, as the standard is focused on the social practices on the farm.

The ASC response to part a is a canard. Part (a) should be read with Part (b).

  • Child labour is used to collect broodstock. Child labour is used in processing shrimp, sometimes on the farm-premises, mostly outside. The ASC’s Standards do not address it. They could have, but they chose not to.
Our response:

On the matter of labour rights, as was the case with Principle 1, the ASC is simply out of its depth. Audit guidelines for labour laws should be drafted by specialists. In the case of the ASC, they refer to SA8000 and ILO Standards, but these guidelines do not apply to the majority of workers on the farm.

Since the ASC accepts that child labour (off-site) may be used to source broodstock on certified farms or process the shrimp produced by certified farms, nothing more need be said.

On Principle 5

Criticism on Principle 5: Antibiotics can be used and there are no requirements on the frequency of use of anti-biotics:

Reality: This is not correct. Indicator 5.3.1 of the ASC Shrimp Standard clearly stipulates that no antibiotics can be used on any ASC-labelled shrimp. If the farm needs to use antibiotics for disease treatment, then these shrimp can no longer be sold as ASC certified and would not be permitted to carry the ASC logo. Importantly, the starting point in the standard is the prevention of diseases by applying best management practices, such as using post larvae without diseases. The standard prescribes the use of alternative disease prevention measures before medicinal treatments.

  • Antibiotics can be used on the farm if it contains a hatchery. Hatcheries, even if they are on-site (i.e., within the scope of certification) are exempt from this clause. Antibiotics in hatcheries are used as prophylactics, not as treatment for disease.
  • No one actually tests the water to verify if antibiotics have or have-not been used. If the owner says he has not used antibiotics, the auditor accepts the statement at face-value. There is no requirement for random sampling.
Our response:

Either you allow usage of antibiotics or you do not. Many organisations have registered their protest against the clause that allows antibiotics listed on the WHO “Highly Important” list to be used in hatcheries that supply to ASC certified farms. If the ASC believes that “Best Management Practices” should allow for the usage of antibiotics, they should have the courage to say it. Don’t be coy about it. Don’t lie about it.

Criticism on Principle 5 (continued): Rotenon (pesticide) and Chloor can be used to kill fish in the pond

Reality: This is correct. Under the ASC Standard, appropriate measures to protect the health of consumers and the environment are taken in theunusual cases when these chemicals must be used. According to ASC Shrimp Standard indicator 5.3.5 on p.79 and p.81 Rotenon, tea-seed-cake and chlorine are lethal for fish. Therefore, the Standard requires that water treated with these pesticides must be held for the appropriate time before release to ensure that aquatic organisms in the receiving waters are not killed.

  • The auditor is not required to take random samples for testing.
  • “Appropriate time” is not the kind of precision expected in a standard. Either you specify permissible levels of a substance or you specify a holding period that would be adequate.
  • Sometimes, it is difficult to devise a “one-fits-all” approach — which is why we proposed that random sampling be carried out.
Our response:

Again, either you allow the usage of certain pesticides or you do not. Don’t lie about it. Further, devise audit guidelines to check what is being claimed, i.e., if your claim is that only certain kinds of pesticides are used, the auditor should be able to verify that the farm has not used banned pesticides or other chemical inputs.

On Principle 6

Criticism on Principle 6: Trawling of broodstock (monodon) is allowed with its negative consequences for the ecosystem and local communities

Reality: This charge is very misleading. Larval shrimp are not ‘trawled’, they are most commonly caught using low impact push nets. This practice is a small, locally important industry in itself for those that typically do not have access to land. At the time of the Shrimp Dialogues in February 2011, technology did not offer enough steady supply to require 100% of P.monodon to come from farm-raised broodstock. Sourcing of fished P.monodon broodstock can only be done from within the same country, water body and/or genetic subpopulation (footnote 113 of the ASC Shrimp Standard).Phasing these requirement is an attempt to allow the responsible component of the industry to transition to better managed and disease free brood stock, without an abrupt transition that would disrupt the economic viability of local farmers. This charge also distorts the truth about shrimp production as very little shrimp is produced with P.monodon. In South East Asia, 70-75 per cent of shrimp are Vannamei and the rest P.monodon; in South America: 99% is Vannamei.

  • “Trawling” refers to the practice of women and children wading through water all day to catch $1 worth of PL.

Yes. It’s child labour. Yes, we know that it is outside the farm and that the ASC refuses to take an ethical stand against shrimp farmers who purchase from them.

  • The practice of P. monodon collection is devastating to the environment. Also, the “industry” as the ASC calls it is a consequence of the kind of high-volume, high-impact, low-cost shrimp production that the ASC supports.
  • Nothing grows in the areas where shrimp is produced. Women, children and other vulnerable sections of society are forced into this hazardous and destructice occupation simply because there is no other kind of work available to them. This is has been demonstrated conclusively in regions where P. monodon is the primary product of the local shrimp industry.

We know that P. vannamei comprises the majority of shrimp produced. Our criticism was about P. monodon and it remains valid. The grace period for phasing out the sourcing of wild-caught PL has expired.

Will the ASC refuse to certify P. monodon sourced from wild caught PL? If so, how does it intend to audit this criterion?

Our Response:

Since the ASC accepts that women and children are engaged in these activities and that ASC-certified shrimp farms may source such products, we have nothing more to add.

On Principle 7

Criticism on Principle 7: Also critic on the 5 years transition period for MSC certified marine ingredients.

Reality: The ASC is currently developing a Responsible Feed Standard to address the issues surrounding feed in the aquaculture industry.1

Criticism on Principle 7 (continued): The standard only requires monitoring for energy use and no reduction targets.Reality: The ASC Shrimp Standard acknowledges that, at this time, there is insufficient data available for setting energy use requirements. Therefore, the ASC Shrimp Standard requires the collection of energy consumption data by audited farms to be able to set up energy requirements in the future. Our goal is to collect detailed data so we can set a feasible standard for the conversion of energy consumption and carbon emissions.

Our response:

We wait and watch. If the Feed Standard and Energy Standard are also “best in class”, as the ASC claims for all its standards, we are not optimistic.

Finally, the ASC has saved the best for last. The first of two charges is that only ingredients that account for more than 2% of the feed need to be disclosed—that low volume additives can be kept secret. The second was that locations of source-fisheries should be disclosed. They responded as follows:

Criticism on Principle 7 (continued): critic that only ingredients that account for more than 2% have to be disclosed hence there is no full transparency

Reality: This charge is misleading. Under the ASC standards, traceability and transparency of major feed ingredients are important for ensuring the credibility of feed sourcing. To satisfy the standard, feed producers are obliged to declare all sources of fishmeal, fish oil and other major ingredients above a 2% inclusion rate during their audits. Proprietary arguments against the full traceability and transparency of ingredients are not an acceptable argument for non-­‐compliance, as the standards require innovations on behalf of producers and full traceability of feed ingredients to ensure the long-­‐term sustainability of feed sources.

Stripped of the unnecessary verbiage, their response is:

  • Traceability and credibility are important, but not for all ingredients.
  • We won’t list the low-volume additives, even though we know (trade-secrets!)
  • We won’t disclose sources-fisheries, even though we know (trade-secrets!)
  • The charge is misleading. Does that answer your question?

A bottle of shampoo must list, in detail, the ingredients used in its manufacture. They have the right to know what their shrimp is being fed. To hide behind trade-secrets is a joke—the devastation caused by the feed industry is not a secret any more. Unfortunately, the largest suppliers of shrimp feed are also among the ASC’s most profitable clients as “Responsible Shrimp Farmers”

The environmental performance of the feed industry can only be checked if certified farms are required to mention the source fisheries and mills from where fish-meal and fish oil is sourced. Clearly, the ASC wants to protect the interests of the feed industry.

Our response:

A consumer has the right to know what the ingredients that he or she eats. The stand taken by the ASC is an outrage, but not surprising — their clients are the shrimp industry. Their needs come first.

In Summation

Instead of improving the social and environmental performance of its standards, the ASC spends its resources lobbying the shrimp industry for patronage; instead of negotiating strongly on behalf of small-farmers, retailers and consumers, the ASC defends the the shrimp industry. The ASC Standard is no different from many others in the certification market. In some aspects it is worse; in others there is scope for genuine improvement.

If the ASC, say, refused to certify farms in the intertidal zone, or banned the use of antibiotics, there would scope for constructive engagement with numerous local-community organisations around the world.

Unfortunately, their approach to improving their Standard is purely cosmetic—like putting lipstick on a pig.

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