Regulation of Sea Cage Aquaculture and the Role of NGOs

We have looked at the Environmental Impacts of Sea Cage Aquaculture, without discussing who is responsible for regulation of these concerns. If a seafood product is produced in Australia there is a consumer expectation that it comes from a well-managed aquaculture facility that complies with environmental legislation. But is this accurate? Can operators and regulators be trusted?

Environmental Regulation in Australia


Marine Lecturer Tim Dempster starts the discussion on a positive note; “In general, Australia has a good system of governance and strong environmental regulation at both federal and state levels. Thus, aquaculture in Australia must meet clear standards to fulfil its community licence to operate.” He explains further; “Regulation of sea-cage practices and environmental impacts fall under state government legislation and regulations which set limits on a range of practices that fish farmers undertake.”

Environmental and compliance monitoring is important for the sustainable management of aquaculture. The aquaculture industry in Australia grew rapidly from the 1970’s to the present day. Rapid growth created regulatory and environmental management challenges. Today, legislation governs all aspects of an aquaculture operation, including drug use, feeds, disease control, fish movements, waste and wastewater.

Seafood industry expert John Susman trusts Australia’s system of governance: “I take a pragmatic view on the fact that we live in a first world country and our government (is) committed to managing agribusiness – both marine and terrestrial – in a manner that is innately sustainable.” He continues, “Our collective governments and industry agencies spend in excess of $40 million annually in researching, reviewing and managing our marine environment and waterways, our fisheries and our aquaculture operations. The resulting data is robust and detailed.”

State and territory governments have primary responsibility for the regulation of aquaculture production. The relevant Department of Primary Industries generally administers this. South Australia is unique as the only state with dedicated Aquaculture specific legislation – The Aquaculture Act (2001).  Other aquaculture legislation is assimilated into coastal use and commercial fisheries management. The main commonwealth legislation dealing with environmental impact is the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

Depending on the location, species and type of production system, an aquaculture producer may require a number of different leases, licenses and permits from various government departments and local government. Large-scale marine aquaculture proposals from sea cage operators are usually required to undergo environmental impact assessment before approval.

Confusion and Criticism


The large number of different government bodies that may be involved in the environmental regulation and monitoring of a single aquaculture operation can result in confusion. Likewise, the significant differences in the way that the states and territories administer regulations relevant to the aquaculture industry have implications for both the management of aquaculture and the efficiency of resource allocation.

Tooni Mahto from the AMCS stresses that “The aquaculture industry would benefit from more coordinated regulation across different states and territories, specific to the farmed product. This will ensure that aquaculture industry development occurs within a sustainable framework.”

As well as this, state government departments primarily responsible for aquaculture regulatory arrangements often have potentially conflicting functions. They may undertake policy development, implementation of regulation, industry promotion and development and research. ACF Healthy Oceans Campaigner Chris Smyth worries that “Sea Cage Aquaculture operations are often promoted by the fisheries agencies that must also have a role in their management, creating a potential for conflict of interest.”

This is confirmed by a 2004 report ‘Assessing Environmental Regulatory Arrangements for Aquaculture’ which highlights that: “There may be some size and efficiency advantages from the grouping of certain functions, but the conflict between regulatory and industry development roles may lead to public and industry mistrust over resource planning and allocation, regulatory approvals, monitoring and enforcement.”

Chris Smyth’s concerns extend to the process of site selection – “The fees for access to the ocean environment for establishing aquaculture operations are very low compared with the costs of establishing similar operations on land. Conservation departments appear to have little say in what goes where in the ocean environment when it comes to aquaculture.”



The industry can also be self-governing, recognizing the economic benefits of good environmental practices. In 1998 the Australian Aquaculture Forum (now replaced by the National Aquaculture Council) developed the ‘Australian Aquaculture Code of Conduct’. This code provides principles aimed at maintaining ecological and economic sustainability for the aquaculture industry. The voluntary code states that industry will work in conjunction with government and other stakeholders to ensure that aquaculture development is managed in a sustainable way.

Steven Gill of Marine Produce Australia comments from an industry perspective; “Compliance with legislative requirements is extremely high in Australian aquaculture production. The benchmark standards are extremely high and Australian consumers rightly have confidence in these systems.”

“Government and industry are responsible for the effective environmental management of sea cage aquaculture” says Tooni Mahto (AMCS) “but NGOs and the public are stakeholders in the process. Consumer choices and preferences can help encourage improvements in the environmental performance and management of aquaculture systems”.

NGO’s and Certification

When GoodFishBadFish embarked on this exploration of sea-cage aquaculture the initial intention was to highlight the ‘vast’ discrepancies between the recommendations of various conservation groups. We highlighted these in our Introduction to this series… but it all changed when we started delving a little deeper.

Different organisations have different goals, and they work in different ways and within their means to promote sustainable seafood consumption across the board. Many of the issues surrounding sustainable seafood are incredibly complex. Senior Marine Ecology Lecturer Tim Dempster points out that behind all of the science and knowledge of the NGOs the fact remains that “As most assessments forwarded by environmental groups must be simple for public engagement, these complexities are never captured or communicated.”

Types of Assessment

There are two types of NGO based sustainable seafood guide – those ­­that undertake species-based assessments and those that focus on assessment of individual products, whether they are specific fisheries or aquaculture companies/operations.

The guide produced by the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) undertakes species-based assessments. ‘Australia’s Sustainable Seafood Guide’ is Australia’s only comprehensive sustainable seafood guide. They have chosen to reach a wide audience and to cover a huge topic. To do this, they have had the hard task of assessing entire species – some of which are fished nationwide under different management schemes, using different methods, with varying levels of environmental and stock impact.

The result is a ‘traffic light’ guide that provides an easy-to-digest snapshot of some basic rules to sustainable seafood consumption. On the surface it appears a broad-brush approach, but look closer and you will see that the fundamentals of sustainable seafood consumption are there.

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) has a much more time consuming and expensive goal – to assess only individual fisheries or aquaculture operations. The ‘Sustainable Australian Seafood Assessment Program’ must undertake ferocious assessment of every facet of an individual business and their practices.

The result is a strong recommendation for consumers sourcing sustainable seafood, but naturally the list is not nearly as comprehensive as that of the AMCS, totalling only 11 ‘products’ to date. Steven Gill went through this process during the assessment of Cone Bay Barramundi. “(it) involved us providing a great deal of detail to the assessor. Food composition, feed rates, feeding methods, net cleaning methodology, harvest techniques, source of broodstock, water flows etc”.

The AMCS red-lists products of sea cage aquaculture because they have concerns about industry wide practices, including reliance on wild-caught feed and the potential for spread of disease, parasites and waste. They acknowledge that there are individual operators attempting to produce fish in a much more sustainable manner, but their job is not to identify these. Their rating for sea cage operations should put pressure on industry as a whole to improve their practices and get ‘out of the red’.


ACF’s Chris Smyth tells us “Aquaculture operators are rarely subject to any independent environmental assessment… independent, third-party assessment programs are crucial if consumers are to be confident when wishing to choose sustainable seafood. Such programs can take the guesswork out of making sustainable seafood choices.” Despite strict regulation in Australia and general confidence in industry practices, he believes that “They are often perceived as providing more credible information than industry and government”.

Steven Gill of Marine Produce Australia fears that “Broad generalisations and or inaccurate assessments create confusion with consumers and do more harm than good.  I believe that the proliferation of labelling schemes often with conflicting advice to consumers has damaged consumer’s confidence in the concept behind eco-labelling.” He believes that “There should be a responsibility for eco-labelling schemes to ensure that the information and assessments they undertake are transparent and based on accurate assumptions”.

It is up to the conservation groups and certification schemes to make themselves well understood by the public. If they are transparent about their goals and practices, they will gain the publics trust and confusion can be avoided.


Seafood industry expert John Susman explains that “Third party eco labels have a role to play (and) the recent announcement by both Woolworths and Coles in regards to stocking only eco-certified seafood by 2015 will certainly put pressure on these labels to make themselves understood.”

The distinctive blue eco-label of international certifier Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is one that consumers can expect to see a lot more of in Australia. The MSC is the world’s biggest certifier of sustainable seafood products. Their eco-label identifies products and fisheries that have been identified as sustainable after extensive assessment of their practices and species stocks. However, even MSC is not without its critics. They have come under fire recently for certifying fisheries that some believe are in danger, or at least scientifically unclear. The major problem with the MSC is that the fisheries themselves contract the MSC and pay for all certification costs – which may result in conflict of interest and the certification of under-assessed or unsustainable fisheries. In essence though, and despite its faults, the MSC eco-label is still one of the soundest recommendations for consumers. Its very existence and rapid uptake is a hopeful sign that certification and sustainability will eventually become industry standard.

So, do we need NGO’s and third-party certifiers?

John Ford, a Marine Scientist at Melbourne University summarises; “Whilst ideally consumers could put full faith in government and industry regulation to deliver a sustainable product, the patchwork of regulatory authorities with different political and economic priorities currently makes this very difficult. Non-government and conservation groups therefore provide a very important role in promoting sustainability and balancing out other interests in the field.”

In the Final instalment of our series on Sea Cage Aquaculture we conclude with some tips for consumers on making choices at the fishmonger.. are all products of sea cage aquaculture the same and which can you ethically eat?

Read the next instalment here: A Summary of Open-Pen Sea Cage Aquaculture

Meanwhile, catch up on the entire series – Exploring Open-Pen Sea Cage Aquaculture