Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC): Variances and Process

Variance requests allow Certification Accreditation Bodies (auditors) to seek an ASC interpretation of or variance from either a Standard criterion or an auditor requirement. Submitted directly to the ASC, variance requests are reviewed and approved (or not) by the Variance Request (VR) committee composed of the ASC Standards Director, Chair of ASC TAG, Chair of the ASC Supervisory Board and ASC’s CEO.

The process lacks stakeholder engagement or third-party oversight raising the concern that the scheme is not entirely meeting its commitments to ISEAL’s Standard Setting Code [i].

Once a variance has been approved, it can be re-applied to “an identical situation for which an earlier VR has been submitted and approved”. This has resulted in auditors frequently reapplying variances in a ‘blanket’ form – across regions and regulatory regimes.

The variance request process can be utilized for any of the eight ASC Standards. Of the 232 variance requests currently listed on the ASC website as of 17th May, 2017 – 121 are applicable to the Salmon Standard alone.

 ASC Certified Salmon Farms in Canada and the Sea Lice Variance

The sea lice variances defer to DFO’s Pacific Aquaculture Regulation’s (PAR) 3 motile L. salmonis per fish instead of the salmon standard’s threshold of 0.1 female lice per fish during sensitive wild fish migration periods. The variance has been applied to benefit all B.C. salmon farms.

Industry-reported sea lice counts for the 10 ASC-certified salmon farms operating during the 2016 sensitive juvenile wild salmon migration period, show none of the farms would be able to meet the ASC salmon standard on-farm lice level limit of 0.1 female lice per farmed fish. Sea lice counts ranged from 0.2 to 6.6 female lice per farmed fish [ii].

Audit evidence shows that CABs routinely cite the variance number and the PAR regime, but no compliance with a metric threshold is required; no upper limit on absolute lice abundance or on lice per fish is applied. This has led to the anomalous situation in which farms with adult L. salmonis levels as high as 19 motile lice per fish are being certified [iii].

ASC Variances in Other Countries

The ASC has granted variances of the salmon standard in other countries as well.

In Australia, ASC defers to local regulation for benthic and water monitoring [iv]. This results in Tasmania salmon farms being exempt from two environmental indicators of the standard. Benthic and water quality impacts from salmon farming remain a serious concern in some parts of Tasmania [v].

In Norway, five variances have been approved for farms that exceeded their sea lice chemical use score [vi]. One Norwegian farm with a pesticide score nearly 4.5 times than required by the standard remains certified [vii].

In Chile, the PTI threshold was varied by ASC in favour of the Chilean Fisheries Authority’s regulations [viii]. Chemical use is a serious environmental concern in Chile, where lice are exhibiting resistance to some treatments [ix].

Further information


[i] ISEAL Alliance (2014). Setting Social and Environmental Standards. ISEAL Code of Good Practice. Version 6.0 – December 2014.

[ii] DFO (2017). Industry sea lice counts at BC marine finfish aquaculture sites.

[iii] Marine Harvest Canada (2016). Monday Rock sea lice count April 17th 2016.

[iv] ASC (2014). Variance Request 22.

[v] Ross, J & Macleod, C (2017). Environmental Research in Macquarie Harbour. Interim Synopsis of Benthic and Water Column Conditions. Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies.

[vi] ASC (2017) Variances 195;196;206;207;223

[vii] ASC (2017) Variance Request 223.

[viii] ASC (2017) Variances 181 & 182

[ix] Seafood Watch (2014). Atlantic Salmon, Coho Salmon. Chile.