If fish farmers are anything like anglers, they are prone to exaggeration. So some of the hyperbole surrounding the launch of the Global Salmon Initiative (GSI), which saw 15 farmed salmon producers commit to improving sustainability in their industry, must be greeted cautiously.

As always, one needs to see through the fog of PR and polemic. Companies naturally tend to talk up initiatives such as this, while NGOs remain deliberately unimpressed. 

In this instance, however, the most flamboyant hyperbole came not from corporate lips. It was Dr Jason Clay of the WWF who described the initiative as a “game changer”. Come to think about it, the WWF’s penchant for expansive language seems also to extend to its job titles, Dr Clay carrying the ambitious handle of senior vice president of “market transformation”.

Clay’s job title reflects WWF’s approach of engaging with companies to make their sectors more sustainable, which often puts them at odds with more combative NGOs and campaigners. 

So it has proved in this instance. In response to the launch of the GSI, Protect Wild Scotland called on WWF to “stop playing the green-washing game and start fighting the expansion of salmon farming in Scotland”.

So once again exhibiting its unswerving commitment to corporate engagement, WWF also has a lot riding on the GSI, having spent almost a decade bringing the farmed salmon sector to this point.

Almost a decade? It is little wonder NGOs and campaigners have grown hoarse with their barracking of the aquaculture sector. But experience across all industrial sectors shows that bringing companies together in pre-competitive discussion of joint sustainability commitments is a painstaking process. 

In the case of the GSI, it began nine years ago with the Salmon Dialogue, one of the multi-sector Aquaculture Dialogues which informed the standards now set by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council.

The GSI said it is adopting the ASC framework as its primary reference point for work and progress. The 15 signatory companies, representing around 70% of global farmed salmon production, include Multiexport Foods, Cermaq, Lerøy Seafood Group, Marine Harvest and The Scottish Salmon Company. They have committed 100% of their production will be ASC-certified by 2020.

The fact it has taken a long time should not be held against the GSI. This is where some of the resolutely hard-nosed positioning of the NGO sector can verge on churlishness.

The Atlantic Salmon Trust (AST) said the GSI’s “admission that significant change is now a necessity is tantamount to admitting that the industry has been concealing its unsustainable practices from the public”. The GSI signatories would certainly question that assumption and, in fairness, the AST also welcomed the GSI, albeit with extreme scepticism.

But, even if the creation of the GSI could be seen as a reflection of what the industry was not doing before 15 August 2013, this is a rather negative way of looking at things. Now is now. We are at Year Zero, so let’s see what the GSI can achieve going forward. The coalition is being careful not to over-reach and is focusing on three primary areas, which include those of most concern to many campaigners: biosecurity, feed sourcing and meeting industry standards.

And there is more riding on this than the reputations of either WWF or 15 salmon producers.

Around five years ago, total aquaculture volumes surpassed volumes of wild-caught fish for the first time. In 2011, global farmed salmon volumes reached 1.6m tons, against wild-caught volumes of 930,000 tons, according to Seafoodsource.com statistics.

Given the continuing pressure on so many sea fisheries a continuation in the trend towards aquaculture is surely desirable, provided the appropriate environmental safeguards are in place. 

Indeed, in 2009 the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) forecast most of the increase in seafood production will be seen in the aquaculture sector owing to the pressure on wild marine fisheries. 

In this regard, the FAO’s direct involvement in the GSI is telling. Árni Mathiesen, assistant director general, FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture, said at the launch the partnership between the GSI and the FAO offered “the potential to improve access and the exchange of information and expertise to support global improvements in environmental and social performance across the industry”.

Mathiesen added the GSI provided “an opportunity to seriously address sustainability challenges as a commodity subsector” and “provide lessons on how a sustainable industry can be created and maintained”.

The world’s largest salmon producing nations are Norway, Canada, Chile and Scotland, but Mathiesen is hopeful the example the salmon industry is setting will be useful in shaping a more sustainable aquaculture sector in developing countries. He continued: “We hope that we can transfer this experience to developing nations, in support of the expansion of their sustainable aquaculture industry, to provide greater sources of nutritious and healthy food”.

His inclusion of the word “healthy” will not be lost on many. Two years ago aquaculture production for the first time exceeded global beef production by volume. With the environmental concerns over beef farming, this is a desirable trend but in terms of meeting future food demands, fish is seen not only as a lower-impact protein source but a healthier one.

The drive for a more sustainable food system cannot be based on utopian idealism; it will always be about making choices. Of course, there are questions to be addressed by the aquaculture sector, and operators should be taken to task about them, but farmed fish offers environmental and health advantages which must be emphasised.

Some might say such a commitment by 15 companies facing all the commercial and competitive pressures which global food companies are under is a significant effort which “deserves to be given a chance”. However, to see this in terms of plaudits for doing the right thing is too narrow a perspective. A viable and sustainable aquaculture sector is critical in terms of meeting rising global demand for fish and the GSI is a crucial step towards making that a reality.