Seeing red

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Vietnamese catfish producers and European importers are demanding the World Wildlife Fund re-evaluate its red-listing of the hugely popular export item


A worker catches tra fish at a fish farm in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam

Local catfish producers and government officials are calling a recent analysis of Vietnam's most popular farmed fish "incorrect" and "unscientific."

On November 19, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) offices in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Norway and Denmark issued an annual seafood consumer guide.

This year, some of Vietnam's tra (or pangasius) catfish products were placed on the organization's "red list" - a compendium of products that conscientious consumers should not buy. WWF claims that red-listed items are produced through unsustainable and environmentally harmful farming practices.

"We oppose the incorrect, unscientific, and unrealistic ratings of some WWF members in Europe," said Nguyen Huu Dung, deputy director of the Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Processors (VASEP). "We are concerned that [the downgrade] may cause big losses to both producers and consumers, and adversely affect WWF's prestige."

Dung said that tra exports play a huge role in Vietnam's economy and have done little to harm the environment.

Twenty local catfish firms have been certified as meeting the Global Good Agriculture Practice (Global GAP), the highest international standard for sustainable aquaculture. These firms control nearly a fifth of Vietnam's total catfish farms, Dung alleged.

Mark Powell, a global seafood coordinator at the WWF recently told the Financial Times that the organization was concerned with the industry's meteoric growth.

"One of the big challenges is that the industry has grown explosively without adequate governance in terms of where farms are sited, how they operate and whether they have polluted water getting into natural rivers," the paper quoted him as saying. "We also feel there's a risk of disease outbreaks."

Dr. Flavio Corsin, of the Vietnam Fisheries Societies International Collaborating Center for Aquaculture Sustainability says he helped draft what will ultimately become the WWF's new standards for "sustainable" tra.

Corsin criticized the downgrade as ill-advised.

"Very limited information was used and the information available was interpreted wrongly," he told Thanh Nien Weekly, via e-mail.

Corsin argues that the WWF's methodology should have approached sustainability from a more holistic perspective, taking into account the vast social and economic impact of their decision.

"Scoring pangasius as red and giving no advance notice to the industry so that they [could] get prepared is also wrong," he said in the via e-mail. "WWF should have given a warning to the industry to allow the industry to discuss the assessment (hence ensuring its accuracy) and prepare for this."

Nguyen Tu Cuong, of the Vietnam Fishing Association, said the government pays a great deal of attention to the industry and recently set up a steering committee on catfish production and sales in the Mekong Delta.

"Our catfish production is now strictly monitored at every stage from the construction of our pond systems [ ... ] to product processing," he said.

Cuong further alleged that Vietnamese catfish farmers can raise up to 1.5 million tons of fish in a 6,000 hectare of pond. He alleged that farms here are relatively compact and have had minimal ecological impact.

Pham Anh Tuan, vice director of the General Department of Seafood under the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development complained that Vietnam had been shut out of the evaluation process.

"Concerned people, from producers to management agencies, were not consulted," Tuan said.

VASEP representatives have welcomed experts from concerned WWF member states to visit Vietnam in order to draft a correct and thorough assessment of the industry.

Dung argues that the WWF's guide will hurt trade relations with the European Union and cause difficulties for tens of thousands of catfish-producing households.

Vietnam is expected to export US$1.4 billion worth of catfish this year, according to Tuan from the General Department of Seafood. So far, the country has shipped over 538,000 tons of tra worth a total of $1.1 billion to 124 countries and territories.

European markets currently receive 36.8 percent of Vietnam's catfish exports. Dung claims that big seafood importers in the EU, such as Findus and Birds Eye Iglo, have objected to the recent red listing.

Dung said VASEP has asked WWF to remove tra from its red list. Meanwhile, Tuan said WWF Vietnam should publish the assessment criteria as soon as possible. Vietnamese authorities and firms are not yet aware of the specifics of the criteria, he said.

WWF VIETNAM RESPONDS

The World Wildlife Fund's "Seafood consumers' guide 2010 2011" downgraded Vietnamese catfish (pangasius) from yellow - "Think twice" to red - "Don't buy."

WWF Vietnam recently announced that the seafood guide is published every year to encourage consumers to buy environmentally friendly products. This is not a legal barrier or constraint for international trade.

The change in the status was attributed to a new assessment methodology, developed by a trio of non-governmental organizations: WWF, Marine Conservation Society and North Sea Foundation.

The actual assessment was undertaken by a yet-unnamed consultant.

WWF Vietnam has claimed that it is working actively with VASEP and its European colleagues to clarify this year's criteria and assessment methodology.

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