Expanding U.S. Aquaculture to the Open Ocean

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A proposed rule would allow offshore aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico.

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Many fisheries are overfished and some are on the brink of collapse, threatening the sustainability of the world’s seafood supply. The United States would suffer greatly from a collapse of the global seafood market, as the vast majority of its seafood is imported. Allowing the U.S. aquaculture industry to operate in the open ocean could help reduce the strain on the world’s fisheries as well as counteract a seafood trade deficit in the U.S. that has grown to more than $9 billion. In the process, however, open ocean aquaculture could cause environmental damage and further jeopardize wild fisheries.

Recently, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposed a rule that would create a new regulatory program to allow for open ocean aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico. The proposed rule aims to increase the productivity of Gulf fisheries by permitting offshore commercial seafood farming operations, known as aquaculture, in U.S. waters.

If the proposed rule were enacted, it would establish a permitting program covering the operation of aquaculture facilities, sales of fish, and harvesting of wild fish to provide stock for aquaculture. Permits would be issued only to U.S. citizens or resident aliens and would be valid for ten years.

Applicants would be required to conduct a “baseline environmental assessment,” provide assurance that the costs of removing the facility would be covered, and certify that aquaculture fish are derived from a local fish population and are not genetically modified. By requiring fish to be derived from local fish stock, the proposed rule would minimize the environmental effects of fish escaping from aquaculture facilities, which may harm native species and ecosystems.

Through the proposed rule, the NMFS would also implement procedures for tracking fish raised in aquaculture and establish measures for distinguishing aquaculture harvests from wild fish harvests. A maximum yield limit would be imposed on the aquaculture industry, and wild fish populations would be monitored for adverse effects. Aquaculture operators would be required to report on fish found to suffer from certain diseases, any entanglement of wild animals, and any escapes of significant numbers of fish from aquaculture operations.

The proposed rule is intended to implement the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council’s Fishery Management Plan for Regulating Offshore Aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico, established in 2009. After the Deepwater Horizon oil well blowout in 2010, the NMFS considered effects of the released oil and use of dispersant before moving forward with its rulemaking process. The NMFS anticipates that if the proposed rule is enacted, five to twenty open ocean aquaculture facilities could be permitted within the next decade.

Although the proposed rule states that it “would establish a comprehensive regulatory program for managing the development of an environmentally sound and economically sustainable aquaculture industry,” many environmentalists are skeptical that potential harm to the environment could be adequately addressed.

One environmental concern is that aquaculture fish could spread diseases to wild fish. Because of the large concentration of a single species, disease might be more prevalent in an aquaculture operation. Open ocean aquaculture facilities could expose nearby wild fish to disease, or diseased fish could escape and infect wild fish. The proposed rule would seek to mitigate the effects of disease on wild fish, in part by requiring aquaculture operations to use local fish stock and to report incidents of disease and escaped fish.

Another problem is environmental contamination from leftover food, chemicals, and excrement. Accumulations of fish food and excrement can result in reduced water quality and harmful algal blooms. Further, the fish food used by aquaculture operations is commonly derived from harvests of small wild fish or sea animals that would otherwise provide food for wild fish. The proposed rule’s permitting program would implement measures to reduce and disperse contamination, but it would not regulate the food sources used by aquaculture operations.

Although environmentalists remain concerned about the impacts of aquaculture development, some groups are focusing on ensuring that the growing aquaculture industry will become more sustainable. With the comment period for the proposed rule recently closed, it seems likely that the NMFS will move forward and start permitting open-ocean aquaculture.