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U.S. plan to develop offshore aquaculture stirs dissent

  • In January, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published a final rule allowing offshore aquaculture in federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
  • The plan includes several measures the agency says will help protect the Gulf environment. For instance, aquaculture sites will be located away from environmentally sensitive areas and waters used for commercial fishing. And companies may only grow fish native to the Gulf and must limit the amount of fish they raise.
  • So far no company has applied for a Gulf aquaculture permit yet, but NOAA officials say it’s early and companies may start to apply soon.

No matter if it’s crab cakes in Maryland or fish tacos in L.A., Americans are eating more seafood than ever. In most cases, the fish doesn’t come from U.S. waters — today up to 90 percent of the seafood Americans eat is imported. Poor fishing practices abroad can deplete global fish populations, a trend that will only worsen as oceans become warmer and more acidic. And overseas shipping contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. As Americans’ demand for seafood continues to rise experts are looking for new ways to raise, rather than catch, more fish, especially closer to home.

In January, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published a final rule allowing offshore aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico. Proponents say the plan will be a boon to global fish populations while minimizing harm to the Gulf environment. But both supporters and opponents of aquaculture generally have criticized it, and last month some even sued the agency over it.

“The federal government’s new nutrition guidelines reaffirmed that we should be eating twice as much seafood. Where is it all going to come from?” Michael Rubino, director of the aquaculture office at NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, said in an interview with Mongabay. Rubino and his colleagues hope that the answer to that question will be from aquaculture taking place in American waters.

Countries all over the world use offshore aquaculture to raise commercially popular fish and shellfish, from salmon in Chile to tilapia in South Africa. U.S. businesses use it too, but so far only in state waters within a few nautical miles of shore.

Royal bream (Sparus aurata) swim in a floating aquaculture net in Marseille, France. Photo by Giles Lemarchand/NOAA Fisheries.

The result is that Americans, knowingly or not, are eating a huge amount of farmed fish — about half of the fish we eat is farmed, according to NOAA.

After a decade of citizen comments and feedback from constituents, NOAA’s new plan will bring aquaculture to federal waters — where the agency refers to it as “offshore aquaculture.” These begin where state waters end (in the Gulf that’s usually about three nautical miles from the coast) and extend 200 miles from shore.

Rubino said the plan looks a lot like those already in place in other states and countries. However, other experts say it places more restrictions on aquaculture than do similar plans internationally.

Under the plan the agency will grant companies permits to establish fish farms for 10 years at first, then will allow the permits to be renewed every five years. NOAA will determine the exact location of each site on a case-by-case basis, officials say, but the sites will be away from environmentally sensitive areas and the heavily trafficked waters used for commercial fishing.

Companies will only be allowed to grow fish native to the Gulf, such as red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus) or red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus), and will have to limit the amount of fish they raise.

NOAA, along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and U.S. Department of Agriculture, places limits on the antibiotics and pesticides that companies will be allowed to use. Some of these agencies will work together to periodically test and monitor the waters around the farms to make sure their environmental impact isn’t too great.

A submersible aquaculture cage sits at the surface for cleaning and inspection. Photo by NOAA Fisheries.

“We have 30 years of experience about what to do and what not to do in aquaculture,” Rubino said.

NOAA claims that a boost to offshore aquaculture will bring many benefits with it: less reliance on imported fish, more jobs for fishermen in the Gulf, more fish to feed a growing demand.

“Like any human activity, there are risks,” Rubino acknowledged, such as farmed fish escaping from enclosures and competing or breeding with their wild relatives.

But NOAA scientists have spent years looking into the environmental effects of offshore aquaculture and they concluded that it does more good for the environment than harm, he said. “I’m not sure that has caught up with the general public yet,” he added.

NOAA’s environmental impact statement on the plan is hotly contested by a handful of environmental organizations and fishery alliances in the Gulf.

“The ultimate environmental analysis [that NOAA conducted] falls short of what is legally mandated,” Sylvia Wu, an attorney at the Center for Food Safety, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit focusing on food and agriculture issues, told Mongabay. She is one of the attorneys representing 12 different organizations — which together comprise hundreds of thousands of members — in a class action lawsuit filed in the eastern district court of Louisiana on February 12. The plaintiffs are suing high-up officials at NOAA and its National Marine Fisheries Service, as well as the U.S. Secretary of Commerce.

“Our view is that NOAA dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s, but it didn’t take the hard look at the environmental factors that is required,” Wu said.

The lawsuit makes two overarching claims. First, that NOAA doesn’t have the authority to implement an offshore aquaculture plan in the first place because industrial aquaculture is not “fishing.” Rather, the suit claims, it’s up to Congress to decide which agency should regulate offshore aquaculture, which so far it hasn’t done.

Second, Wu and her plaintiffs claim that NOAA failed to do the proper economic and environmental analyses to determine the impact of the proposed plan before it was implemented. Sharks and turtles looking for a meal could accidentally make their way inside the enclosures, Wu said. Aquaculture fixtures could impede migrations of the 20 or more species of whales and dolphins, many endangered, that swim through Gulf waters. Antibiotics and waste from the fish will invariably spread throughout much of the Gulf, which could harm wild fish. But Wu said the agency failed to consider the true impact of these and other possibilities in its analyses.

“NOAA says it would consider the environmental impact of each site on a permit-by-permit level,” Wu said. “But there’s no reason why they couldn’t conduct that analysis now, since they already know where the sites will be.”

Moi (Polydactylus sexfilis) swim inside an offshore aquaculture cage in Hawaii. Photo by NOAA Fisheries.

If the plaintiffs prevail, they’ll demand that NOAA formulate its plan again from scratch, and this time they would have to conduct more environmental analyses.

But the plaintiffs’ issues with aquaculture run deeper than simply the facts of this case — they have a problem with offshore aquaculture on other grounds as well, Wu said. Fishermen, coastal communities, and fish-processing facilities will be negatively impacted by the arrival of offshore aquaculture in the Gulf, Wu said. Consumers, too, are caught in the middle, according to Wu.

“For consumers who don’t want to purchase fish with chemical inputs, genetically engineered soy, or antibiotics, that choice is being eliminated,” she said.

Kevin Hopkins, a professor of aquaculture at the University of Hawaii Hilo, has heard this sort of argument before. “The opposition to things like aquaculture and GMOs couch their argument in scientific terms, but it’s really not,” he told Mongabay.

In fact, he said, restrictions from groups that oppose aquaculture are preventing scientists from performing exactly the kinds of tests they demand to prove that the practice isn’t environmentally harmful. The best plan for fishery management, Hopkins said, is one that uses the information at hand to start off, then monitors the resulting conditions and adapts to them.

“We do not have perfect information. If we don’t have it, let us go collect it. If we find out the operation is going bad, shut it down,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins is a firm believer in the benefits of aquaculture. “I think if you look at the totality of the environmental impacts, growing fish offshore is more environmentally benign than other methods we have,” he said.

If Americans are going to be eating fish, we have an obligation to try to produce it ourselves, Hopkins argued. Raising fish on shore requires more energy to pump in seawater or purify freshwater than it does offshore. And it competes with other humans and animals for land and freshwater.

NOAA’s offshore aquaculture plan isn’t perfect, Hopkins said. Even those most in favor of offshore aquaculture are grumbling because the limit on the amount of fish that can be raised in each enclosure is too low, the 10-year lease too short. It’s definitely a compromise, but it’s better to have an imperfect plan that can be improved than not to have a plan at all, he said.

“This is a start in federal waters. It gives us a pathway to go forward,” Hopkins said.

As of mid-March, no company has yet applied for an aquaculture permit with NOAA, Rubino said. But it’s early yet, and companies may start to apply soon.