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Go it alone or be part of the shoal? How the salmon industry is trying to turn the tide with pre-competitive collaboration

The aquaculture sector faces a plethora of environmental issues, but also has a mandate to feed the growing global population. Here's how it wants to reconcile them.

"You want to share your best practices with your competitors?" That was the response from other industry representatives as I shared the decision on the Global Salmon Initiative (GSI) with them for the first time. Choosing to work with our competitors to overcome environmental issues was a big risk to take — but at the time, our industry was facing a large number of limitations to sustainable growth, and we had to try something radical.

The GSI is a leadership initiative established and led by salmon farming company CEOs committed to making significant environmental improvements. To do this, we engaged a number of key stakeholders including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN), along with a number of retailers and buyers, to discuss what the biggest issues facing the industry were and where we should focus our attention.

From these conversations, disease management, improving feed sustainability and improving industry transparency emerged as the key work areas we should prioritize. By collaborating and sharing learnings, we found we could identify solutions and bring about "on the ground" changes much faster and at a greater scale than working independently.

One challenge the aquaculture sector faces is the use of wild fish as a central ingredient in fish feed. Acknowledging that the industry would need to reduce its dependence on this resource quickly to improve its environmental performance, the GSI initiated a tender for new novel oil sources that met the nutritional requirements to maintain both the salmon’s health and the health benefits for the consumer. We received responses including novel algae oils, specialized crops and the use of insect meal. All the options were still in the development phase, but through partnerships with industry feed companies, we were able to initiate the rapid development of these alternative feed sources rich in Omega-3s. Three years later, commercial feeds are on the market that significantly have reduced the need for marine sources. While further refinement and development is still needed, working as a collective meant we could find solutions and bring them to market and to scale much faster than we could if we had waited for the market to react.

Working as a collective meant we could find solutions and bring them to market and to scale much faster than we could if we had waited for the market to react.
Another big factor affecting the industry was a lack of transparency, and a perception that the industry wasn’t operating responsibly. As we were developing the GSI’s priorities, we knew that it wouldn’t be enough to say we were changing: We would prove it with third-party validation. Before they could join, GSI members therefore were required to commit to achieving 100 percent Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) certification across their production. We wanted to approach the process as transparently as possible — we also launched the GSI Sustainability Report, which allows stakeholders to view key sustainability data from all GSI members across all regions. The report includes key fish welfare and environmental data, including the use of antibiotics, allowing us to monitor progress and continue to see where further improvement is needed.

At the time, a report such as that was unprecedented for a food sector, but given the questions surrounding the industry’s performance, we knew it was the only way to demonstrate accountability in the industry’s commitment to providing a good product in a responsible manner.

For most industries, working pre-competitively might seem like an antithetical approach to business, but for us, it has been the driving force behind industry transformation. 50 percent of GSI production is ASC-certified, and we’re continuing to 100 percent certification. Furthermore, we are trying to foster an era of innovation where new developments in feeding practices and disease management have significant impact on our environmental performance.

We are all familiar with the conversation on future food systems, and the debate on how we will feed the future 10 billion people on the planet. While it is clear that traditional agriculture cannot meet the growing demand and shifting to less meat in our diets is a necessity, aquaculture can be an important part of maintaining peoples’ protein uptake, especially as overfishing and rising sea temperatures endanger wild fish populations.

Yet we must learn from the mistakes of the green revolution — which means that responsible growth in aquaculture is crucial. Given the changing nature of the world in which we operate, there will always be new challenges, and we’re working with like-minded people who share our vision of a sustainable future for aquaculture and are willing to it a reality. That future will depend upon continual evolvement and innovation — and by pooling our experience and resources, we are much better positioned to do just that.

Just like the salmon, by shoaling, we are quicker and smarter.

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