Congress Floats The Idea Of Expanding Aquaculture

2019-10-21T15:57:29+00:00 October 21, 2019|
(Credit: U.S. Geological Survey)

(Credit: U.S. Geological Survey)

From: Ocean News Weekly/ By: Ocean Leadership Staff 

What it Was

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing titled “Feeding America: Making Sustainable Offshore Aquaculture a Reality.”

Why it Matters

As countries look for sustainable sources of protein to feed growing populations, aquaculture has become the fastest growing food sector in the world. However, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Service and the World Bank, the United States imports over 80 percent of its seafood, which has led to a $14 billion seafood deficit in 2016, and ranks only 17th in total aquaculture production globally. While the United States has research and technology to support aquaculture, and does so in state waters, there is currently no offshore farming in federal waters due to the lack of regulatory structure.

Key Points

Members sought to learn more from witnesses on both benefits and risks of offshore aquaculture as well as best practices for regulation in federal waters. All agreed on the huge potential in U.S waters and expressed varying levels of support for further development. Ms. Kathryn Unger (Managing Director, CQN North America, Cargill Aqua Nutrition, President, Stronger America Through Seafood, Inc) cited our country’s large exclusive economic zone, dynamic workforce, advanced technology, ample feed sources, and growing market demand for seafood as factors positioning the nation for leadership in global aquaculture. However, witnesses identified several factors that contribute to the lag in domestic production: primarily, the uncertainty and unpredictability surrounding permitting, management, and enforcement in federal waters, which has led investors to hesitate to commit to U.S-based projects and fishers to hesitate to pursue aquaculture projects.

Proponents cited the potential widespread economic, environmental, and human health benefits of expanding aquaculture. Ms. Unger explained that economic benefits go beyond direct job creation for coastal communities and include reducing American dependence on seafood imports and generating new opportunities for agricultural sectors through feed development. Witnesses also noted the lower carbon emissions and space efficiency of seafood production, as well as health benefits of consuming seafood-based Omega-3 fatty acids that would come from increased supply of seafood through aquaculture.

However, Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (WA) preached caution, supporting the concept of aquaculture by alluding to successes of Washington shellfish farms but stressing the need for mindfulness of associated risks and considering costs to both surrounding ecosystems and the economic and cultural activities of local communities. She and other witnesses emphasized that poorly managed and underregulated offshore aquaculture, particularly the net pen finfish aquaculture that was the main topic of discussion, poses a direct threat to already threatened marine ecosystems and domestic fisheries, particularly if farming nonnative species that could pressure or infect native species. Ranking Member Cantwell and Mr. Jeremiah Julius (Chairman, Lummi Nation) spotlighted the Cooke salmon disaster of 2017, where net pen failure resulted in the release of 300,000 nonnative Atlantic salmon into the Salish Sea, disrupting native species’ fisheries and ecosystems. They explained that this could have been avoided through monitoring and prompt response plans.

Much discussion centered on the need for a streamlined and predictable policy framework to advance the development of offshore aquaculture. Dr. Paul Doremus (Deputy Assistant Administrator of Operations, NOAA) and Dr. Ben Halpern (Director, National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, University of California Santa Barbara) were confident that proper management and science-based tools could minimize environmental impacts and spatial planning conflicts. Witnesses and members expressed confidence in NOAA’s ability to successfully regulate the industry based on the agency’s well-managed, coordinated, science-based system of wild fishery management under the Magnuson-Stevens Act; conflict mitigation ability; successful cooperation with coastal state governments; and investment in decision-making tools. Suggested best practices included proper siting of net pens, including stakeholder consultations in the decision-making process, and close monitoring and reporting requirements for governments and companies.

Next Steps

Chairman Roger Wicker (MS) announced he will be re-introducing the Advancing the Quality and Understanding of American Aquaculture (AQUAA) Act this month, which builds upon last Congress’ AQUAA Act. He described how the bill seeks to streamline the permitting process for net pens in federal waters by creating a set of national standards, similar to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and gives NOAA Fisheries clear authority over offshore aquaculture in these areas.


“It is critical that efforts to create aquaculture policy are informed by science and adaptive to new science. Well-managed aquaculture will need to take into account community and social aspects, and the science on this is more sparse.” — Dr. Ben Halpern (Director, National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, University of California Santa Barbara)

“To produce safe, sustainable and scientifically-informed marine aquaculture requires clear policy based on the best available science. As a global leader in the management of our marine resources, the U.S. has the opportunity, knowledge and capacity to do this in a way that sets a global standard.” — Dr. Ben Halpern (Director, National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, University of California Santa Barbara)

“Despite the fact that we have technical expertise and entrepreneurs ready to start growing fish, there are no fin fish aquaculture operations in federal waters. By carefully considering existing uses of our busy coast, we can thoughtfully place new aquaculture facilities and reduce spatial conflicts.” — Chairman Roger Wicker (MS)

“Our maritime ecosystems are already under dire threat from rapidly changing acidity in our oceans, Marine heat waves, oxygen depletion and global climate change. And while we need high quality protein to feed the world, it must be sustainable. So we can’t further exacerbate the problems of our current fisheries until we answer these questions.” —  Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (WA)

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