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How can we ensure responsible antibiotic use in seafood farming?

March 14, 2024

When you eat farmed seafood, do you worry about its exposure to antibiotics? It’s a concern we hear often at ASC, and one that can really impact people’s view of farmed fish. After all, we want to make the best choices for our family’s health and diet, and the food we choose to buy is a big part of that.

To help you make an informed choice, it’s important to understand how and why seafood farmers use antibiotics. So in this blog we’re diving into antibiotic use in the seafood farming industry, the associated risks and how the ASC standards ensure responsible use of antibiotics and piece of mind for seafood lovers.

Why use antibiotics in seafood farming?

As with human medicine, marine antibiotics were created to prevent and treat bacterial infection when it occurs, with the goal of breeding happy, healthy fish. The key benefits of using them are:

  • improving health and wellbeing: fish farming by definition means large numbers of fish in an environment with set boundaries. This means that if there’s a disease outbreak – which can occur in even the most carefully managed farm – it can spread quickly.

In these instances, antibiotics used carefully and sparingly are an effective tool. Monitoring fish health and using antibiotics when required can result in lower numbers of disease-related deaths and better overall health and growth in the fish population. This means better quality fish for seafood lovers to enjoy.

  • reliable outputs: high levels of disease-related fish deaths can have a big financial impact on farms. This impact will trickle down to the people and businesses reliant on these farms, and ultimately to the people who want to eat the fish they produce. Use of antibiotics – often the most practical and effective option – reduces that risk and helps farms maintain their desired production rates and meet the growing global demand for seafood.

What are the concerns around antibiotic use?

Problems arise when seafood farmers use antibiotics indiscriminately to try to prevent disease in their fish and to encourage growth. This can lead to a series of issues:

  • development of antibiotic resistance: this is as much of an issue in seafood as it is in humans. Antibiotic resistance happens when antibiotics are used too often and the bacteria they are trying to eliminate begin to be less affected or completely unaffected by the presence of the antibiotic.

This means that diseases either can’t be treated as effectively, or can’t be treated at all. The semi or fully-resistant bacteria can then spread through the species population and to other species, including people and plants. Because this bacteria doesn’t respond to treatment as it should, it becomes difficult to combat its spread and cure the illness it causes.

  • antibiotic residues: if fish are exposed to a lot of antibiotics, there’s a risk that traces of the drugs will remain in the fish and, once eaten, pass into the consumer, causing a potential risk to human health.
  • ecosystem disruption: use of antibiotics can affect the communities of microbes living in the surrounding environment. If those microbes typically maintain water quality or support the health of other marine organisms, their inability to do those jobs can disturb the balance of the whole ecosystem.

How can the ASC standards reassure seafood lovers that they can enjoy fish safely?

At ASC we want to empower seafood lovers to feel confident that when they buy ASC certified seafood they are making a safe and sustainable choice. We believe that if we are to avoid or mitigate the risks of antibiotic use in the seafood farming industry, a consistent, responsible approach is critically important.

The ASC standards are the strictest in the world and the farms that use our label must adhere to our standards around antibiotic use. The key rules for ASC certified farms are:

  • no preventative antibiotic use: this means that farms can only use antibiotics if prescribed by a vet after a proper diagnosis. And when medication is prescribed, there are strict rules around its administration to make sure it’s done responsibly. This leads to reduced use of antibiotics and therefore reduced risk of antibiotic resistance. The ban on preventative use also encourages farmers to pro-actively find better ways to keep their fish healthy and prevent disease.
  • never using certain antibiotics: specific antibiotics can never be used on ASC certified farms because the World Health Organisation (WHO) has deemed them so important to human health that we can’t risk bacterial resistance to them developing.
  • species-specific bans on antibiotic use: in certain species, for instance shrimp, farms aren’t allowed to use any antibiotics at all and must find alternative disease prevention and treatment methods.
  • seafood health planning: farms must create a health plan for their fish, making sure that there is thriving biodiversity under the farm, good water quality and that fish at all stages of life have high welfare levels. This holistic approach makes farms more aware of environmental impacts and less reliant on preventative or reactive antibiotic use.

By adhering to the ASC standards, farms are actively contributing to reducing the risk that irresponsible antibiotic use poses to environmental and public health. They are also demonstrating to other farms what’s possible, and we hope this will encourage more farms to adopt this high operating standard.

To be confident that the seafood you eat has been farmed in a responsible and sustainable way, look for the teal ASC label when you shop for your seafood. Find out more about responsible seafood farming and easy ways to enjoy seafood by following us on Instagram.

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