AFS Calls for a Clear, Predictable, Regulatory Framework to Enable Growth of Offshore Aquaculture

Policy Column

Drue Banta Winters | AFS Policy Director

Growing up along the Gulf Coast, wild caught seafood was abundant and affordable. Even in the leanest financial times, there were feasts from the natural bounty of the briny waters—boiled shrimp, marinated blue crab, pan‐fried speckled trout, and char grilled oysters.

But, times they are a changing. The future of our seafood supply is something policymakers must address. Demand for fish and shellfish is expected to increase by roughly 30 million tons in the next decade and we know it cannot sustainably come from capture fisheries.

Today, capture fisheries in the United States are well managed and productive, but even the most optimistic assessments indicate that we cannot meet the expected demand with wild caught fish. There is little room for additional sustainable wild harvest at present and it is unlikely there will be additional headroom in the future.

Climate change is altering marine and coastal ecosystems with significant implications for wild capture fisheries and marine economies. Projected increases in ocean temperature are expected to reduce the maximum catch potential in most U.S. regions. Many harvested stocks will shift from one area to another, or even across international boundaries with implications for seafood supply, ports, and associated businesses. Loss of habitat from sea level rise will lead to declines in the vast majority of commercially and recreationally harvested marine finfish and shellfish that are dependent on estuaries and coastal systems for some stage of their life cycle. Increased carbon dioxide absorption is changing ocean chemistry, rendering some waters too acidic for marine organisms with calcium shells, such as oysters and clams, and threatening the base of the marine food web.

Aquaculture is and will continue to be the world’s most important source of seafood. More than half of the fish we eat now comes from farms. Building a domestic aquaculture industry can protect our wild marine resources from the growing seafood demand and the pressure of overharvest, and can reduce the sizable carbon footprint that imported seafood leaves as it travels to our tables. Yet, there is no clear path for an aquaculture industry to develop in U.S. waters.

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling in Gulf Fishermens Association v. National Marine Fisheries Service, No. 19‐30006 (5th Cir. August 3, 2020), foreclosed the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)’s ability to regulate aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico under the Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 (Act). The court noted that the Act is “textual dead zone when it comes to aquaculture.” In the past, NMFS interpreted this legislative silence as conveying authority, but the court disagreed and found that NMFS’ authority to regulate wild capture under the Act cannot be extended to mean raising fish. Legislation has been introduced in Congress to clarify authority and provide regulatory certainty, but those bills have not appreciably advanced.

This summer, AFS took a stand and approved a statement on offshore aquaculture that called for a clear, predictable, regulatory framework to enable growth of offshore aquaculture in a conscientious, environmentally sustainable manner. The Society has been sharing this message with policymakers, reviewing legislative proposals on offshore aquaculture, and bringing the science to Capitol Hill.

The American Fisheries Society has also challenged outdated perceptions on the environmental impacts of aquaculture that have limited social acceptance and complicated efforts to advance federal legislation. In 2019, AFS brought five experts from various aquaculture disciplines to Capitol Hill to highlight the advances in science, technology, and best management practices that have reduced the environmental footprint and increased the sustainability of marine aquaculture (Figure 1). These scientists focused on the use of antibiotics, sustainability of using fish meal and fish oils for feeds, water quality impacts and degradation of the seafloor, effect of fish escapes on wild stocks, and the potential transfer of disease from farmed to wild populations in marine aquaculture. Safeguards are already in place in existing laws and regulations to hold aquaculture facilities to a high environmental standard. Ongoing research and innovation can further minimize environmental risks.


Figure 1. Photo credit: Peter Turcik

While there is much work still to be done on the Hill, NOAA Fisheries continues to lay the foundation for a domestic industry. In August, NOAA Fisheries announced the first two regions for future aquaculture opportunity in federal waters, based on available spatial analysis data and current industry interest in developing operations. Federal waters off southern California and in the Gulf of Mexico were slated as the first two regions to host Aquaculture Opportunity Areas, with an additional eight to be established by 2025. These sites have been evaluated for their potential for sustainable commercial aquaculture and are expected to support multiple aquaculture farm sites of varying types including finfish, shellfish, seaweed, or some combination thereof. The exact locations for farms will be identified based on best‐available science, including data‐driven siting analyses using hundreds of data layers of ocean conditions and uses.

The American Fisheries Society helped me to understand that a thriving marine aquaculture industry in the United States can help to sustainably address America’s ongoing dependence on imported seafood, relieve local pressures on wild stocks, and provide economic opportunities for waterfront communities. As AFS shares the best available science with policymakers in Washington, D.C., as always, I invite you to get involved. First, listen to our webinar, Mythbusting Marine Aquaculture (available: https://bit.ly/2EUfMek) and learn about the advancements in research and technology discussed in this article. Second, spread the word by sharing our statement and fact sheet (available: https://bit.ly/31U193d) on the myths with your member of Congress. And finally, get more involved in AFS efforts to educate others on the impacts of climate change to fish and fisheries. Visit fisheries.org for more information.