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My Aquaculture Journey

I am at the new Whole Foods Market store in Tribeca, NYC perusing the seafood counter on a most exciting day. Today we launched our new quality standards for farmed seafood at Whole Foods Market, a culmination of two years work to set the bar high for aquaculture practices worldwide. I watch as an inquisitive customer reads through our brochure detailing the key highlights of the new standards while the team member wraps up her salmon. Her eyes shift from the brochure to the salmon in the case. "Does this salmon that I'm buying come from this farm, pictured here in this brochure? Does it meet your standards?" she asks the team member. "It sure does," he replies proudly to the customer's delight, "all of our farmed seafood will need to meet our standards and be approved through an independent third party audit." "That's so cool," she declares, and away she goes, pulled by the hand by an impatient toddler. As I scan the seafood case, I see fish from many of the farms that I've visited over the last two years-salmon from Norway, trout and catfish from North Carolina, shrimp from Vietnam, and Arctic char from Iceland, to name only a few. It's been a stimulating and inspiring process developing these standards. Learning about the problems and finding solutions-my favorite kind of work. Speaking with scientists, environmentalists, and producers, I investigated every issue related to aquaculture: feed, predator control, water quality, chemical use, environmental contaminants, siting, traceability, etc. With the best available science, I armed myself with all the information. Then I went into the field. I visited hatcheries, farms, feed mills, and processing plants to get a closer look at how farmed fish are produced and to really understand what producers are doing, and not doing. {C}{C}{C}In Norway, for example, as I stood alongside our regional seafood coordinators on the outside rim of a salmon pen, clad in survival suits, with seawater lapping at the soles of our shoes, I learned how our innovative supplier partners at Villa Organic use cleanerfish (wrasse) to handle skin parasites rather than the typical industry practice of adding a chemical parasiticide to the feed. The cleanerfish have an appetite for the parasites and eat them right off the salmon. What I learned through this site visit, and the extensive research behind it, is that there are a handful of producers in the world that are going above and beyond conventional practices. In fact, less than one percent of the salmon produced worldwide can meet our standards. By partnering with these industry leaders, it's possible to offer the highest quality fish to our customers and set a high bar that move the seafood industry toward greater sustainability. Another example from our partners at Villa Organic is their work to eliminate the use of toxic anti-foulant paints on the nets. Over time algae and mussels build up on the nets and "foul" them, which reduces water flow through the pens and oxygen in the water (not good for the health of the fish). Most farms treat the nets with copper-based anti-foulants paints. Instead, our supplier partners at Villa have used divers to power wash the nets. Now, they're advancing things further with new technology. They're testing out a large power washing machine that allows them to clean the nets faster and without the use of divers, which is safer because it keeps farm workers out of the frigid water.

With farmed shrimp, a major concern is damage to habitat, specifically fragile wetland or mangrove forests. But in Honduras, for example, shrimp farmers have found a way to farm shrimp without damaging mangroves. Instead of cutting down mangroves to build shrimp ponds, these producers developed farms on salt flats, where mangroves do not naturally occur. I also saw a similar approach in Belize. Vietnam's low density extensive shrimp farms also have a low impact on mangrove forests. Our supplier partners there actually grow shrimp in ponds within the mangrove ecosystem, rather than clearing them out. Under this type of system the shrimp feed on the natural organisms in the ecosystem, eliminating the need to use any formulated feed at all. This is a real benefit for the conservation of small wild fish populations that are being used for aquaculture feed worldwide. So as I wrap up my tour of the seafood counter in Tribeca, I'm seeing the farmed fish with familiar eyes. Looking at the Arctic char, I recall the land-based farm on the coast of Iceland where the volcanic rocks in the tree-less landscape create the feeling of a moonscape. On the farm, the char are raised in tanks, allowing producers to control water quality and prevent escapes. And the tilapia from Costa Rica? The prevailing memory in my mind is of wildlife. There our supplier partners have done what advocates of sustainable aquaculture always hope to see. They constructed man-made wetland area to serve as a natural waste water treatment system. And the bird life was thriving! But not only that, the nutrients from the farm help out the local farmers who in turn are able to reduce their use of synthetic fertilizers. And have I mentioned that the tilapia farm sources its feed from trimmings from fish processed locally, rather than relying on catching wild fish for feed? And the stories go on... Check back for more postings on topics related to Seafood Quality Standards at Whole Foods Market. I look forward to your comments.