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Spot prawns at Fisherman's Wharf in Vancouver.

Laura Leyshon

The consumer's search for healthy seafood was supposed to have been made easier last week when a new Canadian Organic Aquaculture Standard was approved. The standard sets the rules by which fish and shellfish have to be raised to be considered organic.

"Until now, organic claims could show up on aquaculture products from outside the country and consumers wouldn't know whether the claims were trustworthy," said Matthew Holmes, executive director of the Canada Organic Trade Association. "Now we have a made-in-Canada standard that clearly and verifiably defines the environmental and husbandry requirements."

That, at least, is the intent. Ironically the standard – approved after three years of debate by a stakeholder committee made up of government, industry, consumer and environmental groups – may end up making shoppers more confused than ever about what products are the healthiest choices for them and the environment.

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Under the standard, wild salmon cannot be certified as organic because the source of their food cannot be confirmed, even though they have roamed free in the ocean, have eaten only natural food and have never been treated with drugs or chemicals.

But farmed salmon, raised in net pens, fed processed fish meal and perhaps treated with parasiticides, can be labelled organic because the food source can be verified and because some limited chemical use is sanctioned. That means that a "green" label could be attached to fish produced in open net pens, even though groups such as SeaChoice ask consumers to avoid such salmon, because of environmental concerns about the spread of diseases and parasites, and the accumulation of wastes under densely packed pens.

This contradiction has left Dane Chauvel, CEO of Organic Ocean Seafood Inc., fuming.

"It's a push by industry to promote and market a product that is not in any way organic," said Mr. Chauvel. "I think it's a sham."

Mr. Chauvel's company sells both farmed and wild products from cold storage or directly off boats at the False Creek fisherman's wharf, near Granville Island public market in Vancouver. He says he supports any move by the aquaculture industry to attain higher organic standards for its products. But he believes these rules have been drafted so loosely that the brand value of the organic label could be damaged.

Kelly Roebuck, of the Living Oceans Society, agrees. Her group was one of several environmental organizations that opposed the new standard when the issue came to a vote.

"When it comes to the organic label, I think most shoppers automatically think [that means]there are no pesticides or herbicides used on the product, but with this new organic aquaculture standard, there's a possibility that farmed salmon can have [been treated with]SLICE, which is a parasiticide. So as a shopper or consumer, it's really hard to feel comfortable and confident about what will be an organic claim," she said.

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Ruth Salmon, executive director of the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance, disagrees, and said the new standard is a welcome development because it sets the bar higher for producers. "We are all about continued improvement so the completion of the standard is a positive step," she said.

Stephanie Wells, a regulatory affairs adviser with the Canada Organic Trade Association, said the certification process is difficult, and it could be years before Canadian fish farmers can be approved to have an organic label on their products.

Some aquaculture operations, however, are already operating to standards as high or higher than those set last week and should easily be able to qualify.

Bruce Kenny, of Omega Pacific Seafarms, for example, runs a black cod farm in Barkley Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. He boasts he hasn't used any antibiotics in more than a decade because his fish are so healthy. He said the farm has long used low density levels in stocking its pens and that it practises humane harvesting methods, two other key requirements of the new standards.

"I think these new standards are about enforcing integrity. It basically says, here's how you should grow things … it's about doing things right, and I think that's what all farmers aspire to anyway," he said.

The problem is, consumers can't tell from looking at a fish – or a carrot, for that matter – if it was grown right or not. That's why they look for a label they can trust. And judging by the debate that's going on, the new Canadian Organic Aquaculture Standard may not deliver that certainty.

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Mary Forstbauer, president of the Certified Organic Associations of B.C., said her concern is that if consumers become leery of aquaculture labels, they might also lose confidence in the labels her group uses on beef, pork, poultry, vegetables and fruits.

"It sucks," she said of the new aquaculture standard. "To me, it makes a mockery of the whole organics system."

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