The Aquaculture Dialogues are a multi-stakeholder process that was developed and convened by the World Wildlife Fund in 2003. The process seeks to identify the major impacts associated with the major aquaculture production species (e.g. tilapia, salmon, shrimp, trout, bivalves, catfish) via dialogue between the industry, ENGO's (environmental non-governmental organizations), and other stakeholders (e.g. scientists, retailers, etc.). Once the major impacts are identified, the process seeks to define performance based standards that will be used to certify aquaculture products for seafood buyers interested in "sustainable seafood". Performance standards are different from Best Management Practices because they allow the producer to innovate and conform to a sustainability target rather than stripping the farmer of their expertise and potential for innovation. This model has been used by WWF for other key agricultural products such as palm oil and soy.
The standards generated by the process effectively represent the first attempt by the major stakeholders to collectively and transparently define what constitutes acceptable environmental and social impacts for the aquaculture production in focus. The Aquaculture Dialogues prides itself on being fully transparent, multi-stakeholder and conforming to the guidelines for credible standards setting as determined by the ISEAL Alliance for standard setting. A key feature of this process is that it requires the draft standards to undertake two separate public comment periods (30 or 60 day) to ensure that this public has a voice in the shaping of the standards. This unprecedented collaboration between stakeholders represents the new frontier in NGO - Industry relations where the "middle ground" can be explored in a multi-stakeholder and transparent manner.
Another major component of the process is a commitment to the continuous improvement of the standards after they are initially drafted, especially on critical issues where current science is not sufficient to allow for standards to be created. Although not certain at this point, the current thinking is that dialogue standards will be improved once every 2 years for the first 6 years and then once every 4-5 years. Another benefit of using performance standards is that the target should be able to be increased over time as more data is available and farmers reported on the challenges of compliance. Once created, the standards will be handed over to the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) who will oversee certifications and build the brand value of the certification. The ASC is currently being developed and is set to begin operations in mid-2011. The Aquaculture Dialogues are scheduled to be completed sometime in 2010 for all species except perhaps for salmon which should finish in early 2011.