On Monday, Sept. 24, U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo ruled in favor of environmental, public interest and fishing groups who filed suit against the national Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, two years ago to block efforts to establish aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico. In January 2016, in conjunction with the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, NMFS finalized regulations to authorize a federal commercial aquaculture permitting scheme in the Gulf of Mexico via a Fishery Management Plan.
The agency has long interpreted the definition of fishing in the Magnuson-Stevens Act to encompass aquaculture. The judge ruled NMFS did not have the authority to regulate aquaculture under the act and that it was meant to give NMFS authority over the harvesting of wild fish, not aquaculture. “In analyzing the plain text, statutory scheme, and legislative history of the MSA, this court finds that the term ‘harvesting’ was intended to refer to the traditional fishing of wild fish,” Milazzo wrote in her opinion. “There is nothing in the MSA or its legislative history to suggest that Congress might have intended that the term be defined to include the farming of fish. The judge did not take up the issue of whether failed to consider the potential negative environmental impacts from offshore aquaculture.
NOAA supports congressional efforts to clarify the agency’s statutory authority to regulate aquaculture. On Friday, September 29, Rep. Steven Palazzo, (R.-Miss.) and Rep. Collin Peterson, (D.-Minn.), introduced H.R. 6966, Advancing the Quality and Understanding of American Aquaculture (AQUAA) Act on Friday, giving a companion to S. 3138 introduced by Sen. Roger Wicker in June. Both bills seek to create an Office of Marine Aquaculture within NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service to permit new aquaculture facilities in federal waters, three to 200 miles offshore. With mid-term elections on the horizon, there is only a short window for this legislation to move this Congress. Neither bill has had a hearing.