In January 2016, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) finalized a rule that authorized up to 20 permits for fish farming in the Gulf of Mexico’s federal waters. Advocacy groups filed a lawsuit challenging the rule almost immediately. For 18 months, no one applied for a permit.
“They didn’t want to run the gauntlet of these permits because it was just so fraught,” said Neil Sims, a serial aquaculture entrepreneur who ultimately broke the stalemate. He proposed a pilot project dubbed Velella Epsilon, which would produce a total of 20,000 almaco jack, a fish native to the Gulf, in state-of-the-art net pens 45 miles off the coast of Sarasota, Florida. Sims said that his company, Ocean Era, aimed to “blaze a trail, so people can see the process that we go through.”
So far, that process has resembled more of a battle. Years later, the permitting process is still ongoing, and at each step, a mix of local residents and groups representing environmentalists and wild capture fisheries has mounted fierce opposition—with public comments, lawsuits, and, most recently, a “people’s hearing” on the project taking place on September 30.
“This is potentially a precedent-setting operation,” said Marianne Cufone, the executive director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition, which promotes a specific style of land-based aquaculture, and a founding member of the Don’t Cage Our Ocean coalition. In Cufone’s opinion, it must be stopped.
The question is: Can it be stopped? And should it be?
While a court ruled in favor of advocacy groups in August, stopping NOAA’s larger permitting plan in the Gulf, a push from a group of big companies has created new momentum around expanding offshore finfish aquaculture in the past year. President Trump issued an executive order promoting the growth of the industry in May (though like all of Trump’s executive orders, could come under review), and legislation that would streamline the permitting and regulatory process in federal waters around the country was introduced in the House last spring. Additionally, in September, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced the Advancing the Quality and Understanding of American Aquaculture (AQUAA) Act in the Senate.
While ocean finfish aquaculture has often had a negative reputation in scientific and environmental circles in the United States—due to impacts like fish escapes, disease, antibiotic use, and waste accumulation—that’s changing as systems advance and action on climate change becomes more imperative. While the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s widely respected and cited Seafood Watch recommendations historically rated all ocean-farmed salmon poorly, for example, there are now several farms that, based on their practices and locations, have earned a “best choice” rating.
“We know aquaculture is expanding globally anyway, and the question is whether or not the U.S. can or should be a player,” said Kim Thompson, director of Seafood for the Future at the Aquarium of the Pacific. “In the context of the food supply, there’s actually a lot of research showing that if we’re looking to build a more resilient supply in a changing climate, diversifying where and how we produce our food is going to be really critical, and moving some production out to the ocean is going to help to build some resilience.”
The Climate Case for Farming the Ocean
The argument for aquaculture starts with the fact that compared to land-based animal proteins, farmed fish results in far less greenhouse gas emissions.
“If we do a better job producing seafood . . . and we substitute seafood for some of those higher-impact animal proteins—beef in particular—we can move a tremendous distance towards lowering food-related greenhouse gas emissions without giving up animal proteins in our diet,” said Peter Tyedmers, an ecological economist at Nova Scotia’s Dalhousie University who specializes in food system life-cycle analyses, during a recent Sustainable Seafood panel hosted by Aquarium of the Pacific.
And while some wild fisheries have made progress on management, overfishing remains a critical issue, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) 2020 report on fisheries and aquaculture. “Growth in demand for fish and fish products needs to be met primarily from expansion of aquaculture production,” the report states. The EAT-Lancet commission and the U.N.’s High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) for a Sustainable Ocean Economy have come to similar conclusions.
Aquaculture operations exist in the ocean and on land, but land use can also increase greenhouse gas emissions. And research suggests that ocean-based systems significantly outperform land-based systems—including recirculating farms, which are able to reuse water and recycle waste with closed-loop systems—on emissions, due to less energy and materials used.
Using the ocean to farm seaweed and shellfish—which require zero inputs and can sequester carbon and filter water—is a no-brainer. But raising large numbers of fish that require feed, produce waste, and can swim away is more complicated, which is where the opposition starts.
Ocean (and Other) Impacts
Aquaculture has been growing steadily since as far back as the ’70s, and in 2018, it accounted for 46 percent of the fish consumed around the world, with the FAO predicting that number will increase to 60 percent by 2030. But because of environmental disasters and subsequent perceived negative impacts on ecosystems, ocean-based production in the U.S. is minimal. Most fish farms are near shore in state waters in Hawaii, Maine, and Washington, and there are currently no ocean fish farms in federal waters.
Canadian-based Cooke Aquaculture is one of the most prominent players operating fish farms along North American coastlines. In 2017, one of its near-shore pens in Puget Sound collapsed, which an investigation found was related to company negligence, releasing 250,000 non-native Atlantic salmon into the Sound.
As a result of the disaster, the state passed a law phasing out non-native aquaculture in its waters. In 2019, one of Cooke’s companies overharvested menhaden—small fish that are crucial to the Chesapeake Bay wildlife ecosystem and are used to produce food for farmed fish and Omega-3 supplements—by several thousand tons. In 2020, there were large outbreaks of an infectious salmon disease at three Cooke Aquaculture affiliate farms. Around the world, there are many other examples of ocean fish farming disasters, including in Norway, where sea lice from massive salmon farms have cut wild salmon populations in half.
Members of the Don’t Cage Our Ocean coalition, including Greenpeace, the Institute for Fisheries Resources, and the National Family Farm Coalition, see these examples as proof that all fish farming is too risky.
“We think offshore finfish aquaculture is problematic, and each individual organization has its own positions and particular issues they focus on,” Cufone said. “Some groups are more concerned about impacts on fishing communities; some are concerned about water quality and pollution; some are concerned about the genetic damage that could be done to the wild fish populations when the fish escape; and [some are concerned about] contributions to things like red tide or coral die off or antibiotics or other chemicals in the water.”
Local residents near some proposed farms, including recreational and commercial anglers, have joined in the opposition with concerns about how aquaculture could affect local ecosystems and recreation.
“The sea is the last frontier where sportsmen, tourists, and native Floridians reliably encounter wilderness, solitude, and wonder,” wrote David McGrath in the Sarasota, Florida, Herald-Tribune, in opposition to the Velella Epsilon project. McGrath also said wild fishermen respect the natural behavior of their catch and expressed concerns about animal welfare in farmed systems.
Aquaculture experts and entrepreneurs acknowledge many of those issues but say they are a problem of antiquated systems and bad behavior that can now be addressed through better technology, regulation, and siting. And they make a major distinction between the problematic near-shore projects of the past and the “open ocean” projects that the AQUAA Act would support. Further offshore, deep water and strong currents can mitigate issues of waste accumulation and water quality and companies can build bigger pens to give fish more space.
Many pointed to one of Neil Sims’ past projects, Kona Blue Water Farms, off the coast of the island of Hawaii. The company went out of business during the 2007 recession, but its operations were revived by Blue Ocean Mariculture, which now sells its ocean-raised kampachi all over the U.S.
In 2009, Sims compiled data collected by several Hawaiian agencies that monitored indicators like water quality and ecosystem and wildlife impacts on and near the farm and presented a case study to the FAO. The report found no significant impacts on water quality or surrounding ecosystems. Escapes did happen, but because the fish were native, the agencies did not observe effects on the wild population, and interactions with other species like sharks were minimal and decreased over time, as the facility learned to better manage them.
“We had this thesis. . . . that moving out into deeper water, further offshore with stronger currents, over a sandy bottom, you should be able to grow marine fish in a way that has minimal environmental impact, and we saw that very clearly validated,” Sims said. He has a vested interest in that analysis, and it was not a peer-reviewed research study.
But in February 2019, independent researchers from the University of Miami published the results of research they did on a deep ocean fish farm off Panama. After gathering and analyzing data, they found the impact on water quality and the ocean floor was minimal. A 2017 research review also found that “studies that focused on potential ecological impacts of offshore farms, although few, tended to report no significant effect.”
“All of the success of these systems has to do with where the site is and the equipment, because we have all of the technology now to be able to farm well,” said Jennifer Bushman, a consultant who works with aquaculture companies on sustainability, including Kvaroy Arctic, a Norway-based salmon farm. “In a very short amount of time, there’s been a lot of innovation in this space.”
Bushman pointed to changes like new net technology that minimizes escapes and wildlife entanglements, robotic systems that monitor pens, and advances in more sustainable feed. One of the biggest problems with fish farming is the amount of wild fish needed to feed the farmed ones. In recent years, advancements have reduced the amount of feed needed to grow fish. For example, according to the HLPE report, the rate of fishmeal and fish oil inclusion in Atlantic salmon diets has dropped by 41 percent and 8 percent respectively, as farms have added soymeal and other forms of plant-based protein
Some companies, like Kvaroy, are using trimmings from commercial fisheries to produce meal and oil, while others, like Ocean Era, are working on feed that utilizes microalgae and poultry trimmings (a controversial ingredient). U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) researchers are experimenting with alfalfa as a next-generation fish feed, and many researchers are working on algae-based replacements (including some that are genetically engineered), although questions about the environmental impact of using commodity soy remain.
“We don’t have to make any of the mistakes that have been made in the past. We can use best-in-class technology, because we know better,” Bushman said, excitedly.
But the Don’t Cage Our Ocean coalition points to parallels between large-scale ocean fish farms and Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) on land, calling them “essentially factory farms in water.” Like in CAFOs, dense concentration of fish in pens can lead to unhealthy accumulation of waste and animal welfare concerns such as stress and aggression that lead to fin damage. And while it doesn’t have to be done that way, with pigs, chickens, and cattle, it often is.
If the majority of animal agriculture in the U.S. has turned into companies racing to produce as much meat as cheaply as possible while offloading the environmental and public health impacts as “externalities,” aquaculture critics ask, who’s to say the same won’t happen in the ocean? Especially given the fact that many past offshore projects have failed due to financial constraints, even when given grants from the federal government, Cufone said.
Her argument for land-based recirculating farms is that they tend to be smaller and can feed local communities as small, family farms do. “We want local robust food production. That’s just a better model than industrial scale,” she said.
The Big Policy Push
Opening up federal waters to offshore aquaculture has been on the policy agenda many times during several past administrations, but big business is in fact driving the recent push. When President Trump signed the executive order supporting offshore aquaculture, Cooke Aquaculture CEO Glenn Cooke commended the action.
Meanwhile, a group called Stronger America Through Seafood (SATS), which includes representatives from companies including Cargill, Sysco, and Red Lobster, has been lobbying lawmakers on the issue since December 2017. Margaret Henderson, who is running the lobbying campaign, said SATS provided “insight and education” to the sponsors of the bipartisan AQUAA Act, introduced by Senators Marco Rubio (R-Florida), Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi), and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) in September. An earlier House bill, now considered companion legislation, was sponsored by Representatives Steven Palazzo (R-Mississippi) and Collin Peterson (D-Minnesota)—the House Ag Committee Chair who just lost his reelection bid.
One of the most common arguments in support of the legislation, made by Henderson and others, is that since Americans already eat so much imported farmed fish, producing it here would be better for the economy and planet.
According to NOAA, in 2018, the U.S. imported $22.4 billion worth of fish. Nearly half of that was likely farmed, and historically, much of the imported fish entering the U.S. has come from environmentally destructive land-based and coastal systems, primarily in Asia. (There is some dispute over how accurate those numbers are because experts say a significant amount of fish is produced in the U.S., exported for processing, and then shipped back to the U.S, where it is counted as an import.)
“The U.S. has continued to eat everybody else’s lunch. We have not yet accepted responsibility for the seafood that we eat. If there are food safety concerns and environmental concerns around aquaculture, then we should be doing that aquaculture here, so that we can have control over the standards,” Sims said.
For supporters like Sims, that’s where the AQUAA act comes in. The legislation would essentially give NOAA the legal authority it currently lacks (based on the August court decision) and direct the agency to create and oversee a more unified permitting and review system. Thompson said most of the necessary regulatory infrastructure is already in place via a patchwork of laws that address different aspects of the industry, including the Clean Water Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. In the past, the complex nature of this patchwork of regulations inhibited growth; the AQUAA Act would pull it all together and streamline the process.
“We have the bones [for regulation], but what we don’t have is that kind of comprehensive piece of legislation specific to marine aquaculture to kind of tie all of those things together to ensure that it is implemented more efficiently,” Thompson said.
The AQUAA Act would also direct NOAA to assess federal waters to determine the best spots for offshore aquaculture and then designate “aquaculture opportunity areas.” NOAA has indicated that the first priority areas would be the Gulf of Mexico and the Southern California coast. Funds would be allocated to grow the industry, including grants and technical assistance for aquaculture operators, and to promote offshore fish farming as a sustainable industry.
At the moment, it is unclear whether the AQUAA Act will move forward, especially with a new administration and Congress about to take office. But attempts to expand offshore aquaculture will continue with or without the legislation. In addition to the Ocean Era pilot project in the Gulf, another operation submitted an application in September to farm yellowtail in federal waters off the coast of San Diego.
In the meantime, many activists will continue to fight the expansion. Other experts and advocates will focus on a path forward that would allow for more production of what they see as the most climate-friendly animal protein available, while minimizing the inherent risks via effective regulation.
At the end of the Aquarium of the Pacific’s Sustainable Seafood panel, Thompson asked the three panelists—two academics and an aquaculture expert at the Nature Conservancy, none of whom represented industry—a closing question: “Can we develop an environmentally and economically sustainable marine aquaculture sector in the U.S. and Canada?”
The panelists offered a resounding “yes,” with cautious caveats attached. “We can’t sacrifice the environment for economics. We can’t push something through to make money,” said Michael Tlusty, an associate professor of sustainability and food solutions at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. “Everybody says they’re going to do a good job. We need to hold their feet to the fire.”
This article was updated on November 20, 2020 to better how advocacy group’s pushback affected the expansion of aquaculture in U.S. waters.