March 15, 2022

World Aquaculture ’97 in Seattle Revisited

photo by iStock

Twenty-five years ago, the World Aquaculture Society held its annual conference in Seattle, Washington, a meeting I remember as one of the most contentious I ever attended. Although PETA had mounted anti-aquaculture protests at WAS meetings before 1997, the scale and intensity of anti-aquaculture opposition at the Seattle conference was without precedent in the history of the Society. Given that 25 years has passed since then, it seems to be an appropriate moment to take stock of what happened during the meeting and what has happened since.

At the time, the concept of sustainability was moving to the fore. The Brundtland Commission had popularized the term in 1987, and aquaculture conferences in San Diego (1995) and Bangkok (1996) attempted to define the “problem” of sustainability, but it wasn’t until the 1997 WAS conference that sustainability became an explicit conference theme – “Linking Science to Sustainable Industry Development.” In addition, aquaculture had grown rapidly in the 1990s, large enough to attract attention from critics. Environmental activists and NGOs were calling out the bad practices and bad actors that put profits above a more balanced view that included environmental performance and social accountability as factors that defined success.

I was involved in organizing a two-day special session on sustainability at the conference and subsequently wrote up my reflections in the pages of this magazine. In organizing that special session, we endeavored to include a broad spectrum of voices and viewpoints, with an eye towards constructive engagement and continuous improvement. The environmental NGOs had organized their own special session, in which aquaculture was roundly bashed and an emotional litany of the environmental destruction and social ills wrought by aquaculture were revealed. An anti-aquaculture forum was held as a side event one evening at the University of Washington. In a particularly tense moment, a verbal confrontation occurred in a conference hallway between Alfredo Quarto of the Mangrove Action Project and Dixie Blake of the National Fisheries Institute over what was seen as intrusive and biased behavior by a film crew from the Earth Island environmental NGO. Despite the prevailing confrontational attitude, the sustainability special session went well and, to maintain the positive momentum, we created the SUSAQUA listserve as a mechanism for ongoing constructive engagement.

Arguably the most consequential outcome of World Aquaculture ’97 was the formation of the Global Aquaculture Alliance, organized and initially led by WAS Past-president George Chamberlain. The organization was formed as an advocacy organization to “represent aquaculture in the international arena on issues of trade, public relations and the environment.” They would act by supporting the work of national associations and representing other major aquaculture stakeholders like importers, processors, retailers and restaurants. There has always been tension within WAS leadership between staying true to its original focus on being an honest broker for information and technology, primarily through conferences and publications, and being a more forceful advocate for commercial interests. Forming GAA as a group independent of WAS was the right decision at the right time.
The GAA (now GSA) has accomplished much in the last 25 years. Almost immediately, the organization set about putting together principles for responsible shrimp farming, leading ultimately to the development of the first set of aquaculture ecolabeling standards. Despite some initial hiccups, the organization developed a robust and credible certification program. Standards have continued to evolve, now covering the full spectrum of the value chain, species and systems. And other organizations like the World Wildlife Fund and GlobalGAP have developed their own set of competing standards.

In reflecting on how things have changed since 1997, I consider how, from the beginning, when opponents of aquaculture engage with the professional community, there is inevitably a shift in perspective, views are no longer held so strongly, on all sides. For every example for which I am aware, when a representative of an environmental NGO has engaged the aquaculture community, there is a more realistic view of the playing field and the issues. Representative of environmental NGOs now serve on the boards of the major certification organization, literally a seat at the table.

One example immediately comes to mind, from the plenary address by Rosamund Naylor at the recent aquaculture conference in San Diego. She led a group that published a landmark paper in Nature in 2000 that was highly critical of aquaculture and its “effect on world fish supplies” and that examined the high dependence of aquaculture on fishmeal. I can recall how publication of this paper (and a series of others from her critical of aquaculture) raised the hackles of some of my colleagues. Recently, she led a new multi-author team that published a 20-yr retrospective review of aquaculture that revisited the themes of that paper and that included prominent names from among aquaculture professionals. Not surprisingly, the recent paper provides a much more balance perspective of the salient issues and showed that aquaculture has made good progress towards more sustainable practices, especially around feed use.
The environmental activists of 25 years ago provided a valuable service to aquaculture and gave everyone a wake-up call. Although there will always be bad actors in aquaculture, most of the worst have been rooted out. Things needed to change and they have, although it is arguable how much of a difference has been made, at least with certification programs. Roz Naylor showed a graphic in her plenary that around 3 percent of all seafood is certified, leaving the vast majority of seafood production – primarily carps and other pond-raised, low-value species – not subject to any kind of certification system. The issues around impacts raised 25 years ago – mangroves, fishmeal use, effluents and escapes – remain the main matters of concern, reinforcing the point that, although much has changed since the late 1990s, sustainability continues to be a journey, not a destination..

— John A. Hargreaves, Editor-in-Chief

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About John A. Hargreaves

World Aquaculture - Editor in Chief. Aquaculture expert with 40 years of experience in research, teaching, and development. Freelance consultant on commercial aquaculture and international development projects.

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