NOAA Is Rolling Out a Plan to Radically Expand Offshore Aquaculture. Not Everyone Is Onboard. | Civil Eats

NOAA Is Rolling Out a Plan to Radically Expand Offshore Aquaculture. Not Everyone Is Onboard.

NOAA’s five-year plan to strengthen the domestic seafood market includes establishing dozens of open-pen fish farms up to three miles offshore. But some experts worry about the well-being of marine mammals, the expansion of dead zones from fish excrement, and infringement on wild fishing grounds.

A diver free-dives to the bottom of a fish farm off the coast of the Big Island of Hawaii.

The cardboard gravestones read “RIP Local fisherman,” “RIP Wild Fish,” and “RIP Humpback Whales.” Assembled in response to new aquaculture sites planned off the coast of California, the gravestones were brought to the offices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Long Beach, California, in April by activists keen to register their discontent.

The sites pave the way for possibly dozens of new open-pen fish farms as far as three miles offshore, the future home of species that range from carp to salmon. Chief among the protesters’ concerns were entanglement of marine mammals, the expansion of dead zones caused by fish excrement, and infringement on wild fishing grounds.

Such has been the pushback to the announcement of the site plan following NOAA’s first-ever five-year strategic plan for aquaculture. The plan, released last October, outlines national goals for a thriving and sustainable domestic farmed seafood sector. Central to its aim is using science and best-practice approaches to identify areas in the U.S. suitable for development. Pro-aquaculture proponents have touted its potential to reverse a growing seafood trade deficit and provide Americans with seafood for years to come. However, not everyone sees it this way.

Opponents to the plan point to known risks, including ecological disasters like the infamous 2017 salmon spill that took place in Washington State waters when a salmon net pen collapsed, releasing roughly 300,000 Atlantic salmon in Puget Sound. The spill wreaked havoc, and scientists, environmentalists, and policymakers worried escaped salmon could spread disease or parasites to native Pacific varieties.

Accidents like these are why some governments are moving away from the practice, opponents say. Argentina, Washington State, and British Columbia recently banned net-pen salmon aquaculture. So why, then, is the U.S. moving ahead?

The goal to increase farmed seafood production in America dates back to the National Aquaculture Act of 1980 when the U.S. established aquaculture as a national policy priority. Thanks to an acceleration of scientific improvements in the field, the effort has gained momentum over the past decade.

In May 2020, former President Donald Trump released an executive order to ramp up aquaculture development and identify future “aquaculture opportunity areas” or AOAs suitable for commercial fish farming, an initiative meant to boost the competitiveness of the American seafood industry. Since then, nine areas in the Gulf of Mexico and 10 areas in Southern California have been selected.

“The United States has vast amounts of water and places where aquaculture can be done,” says Drue Banta Winters, campaign manager of industry coalition Stronger America Through Seafood (SATS). Her organization is pushing Congress to pass the AQUAA Act to establish national standards for aquaculture.

By developing more domestic sources of seafood, NOAA aims to reduce U.S. reliance on imports. It states that, “the United States imports at least 70 percent of its seafood. While we continue to sustainably manage our wild harvest fisheries, we cannot meet the increasing domestic demand for seafood through those fisheries alone.”

“The goal is to achieve the vision of a thriving, resilient, and inclusive aquaculture sector that can complement wild fisheries, create jobs, economic opportunities, and contribute to national security.”

Aquaculture’s proponents point to more than 6 billion pounds of seafood imported into the U.S. in 2020 as proof enough of the need for development. Seafood imports resulted in a trade deficit of $17 billion, according to NOAA. According to some politicians, scientists, and industry groups, the imbalance directly results from the U.S. falling behind in fish production, ranking a mere 17th for aquaculture worldwide. The lack of investment in fish farming, they say, weakens the U.S. trade position.

Economics is a key objective. “The goal is to achieve the vision of a thriving, resilient, and inclusive aquaculture sector that can complement wild fisheries, create jobs, economic opportunities, and contribute to national security,” says Danielle Blacklock, director of the Office of Aquaculture at NOAA.

But, again, not everyone sees it this way. Many critics reject the idea that the trade deficit results from a lack of fish. According to Andrianna Natsoulas, campaign director at Don’t Cage Our Oceans, a more likely explanation is that the U.S. sends too much domestically caught seafood out of the country for cheap processing and then re-imports it for consumption.

The organization, an environmental nonprofit focused on the harms of offshore finfish farming, recently took a closer look at the NOAA data. They found that the U.S. can easily feed itself with wild caught domestic seafood.

The deficit figures, they say, fail to account for re-imported seafood. This process, also known as re-shipment, has been called “the great American fish swap” because it creates a confusing web of exports and imports that do nothing to improve food security.

“If we kept the seafood landed in the U.S., we would not have to import so much or develop aquaculture,” says Natsoulas. “Aquaculture is just contributing to the commodification of food.”

Natsoulas says that the U.S. should instead dedicate its resources to developing a more robust seafood processing capacity to balance the trade deficit. Don’t Cage Our Oceans is working towards that goal.

In addition to trade issues, there may be other problems related to global economics. Dane Klinger, director of aquaculture at Conservation International, says that seafood traded internationally is subject to economies of scale and differential labor costs. “As the sector grows, it would need to compete with potentially lower cost imports from countries in Asia, which have lower labor costs than the U.S., and Norway, which achieve economies of scale,” he says.

Countries like Norway and China are also way ahead of the U.S. in developing aquaculture at a larger scale. Klinger says that while the U.S. has the opportunity to be a leader in the sector, due in part to its stringent regulations and sustainability standards, it will face steep competition from more established players. 

An aerial view of fish farm enclosures.

Offshore Option

There are more opinions about aquaculture than there are fish in the sea. For many opponents, environmental concerns are top of mind. Whether it is concerns over fish effluent and its contribution to harmful algal blooms; the spread of invasive species; or the spread of disease from crowded farmed fish to wild ones, including a range of infectious agents and parasites, such as sea lice; critics have much to worry about.

For farms that will be built at least three miles from shore, some of those problems may be minimized. The main difference is that deeper waters and stronger currents dilute pollutants and ensure that they dissipate faster.

Halley Froelich, a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has conducted independent research looking into the ecological effects of offshore systems. In 2017, she published a review of the available literature and found that there is no consensus on the baseline definition of “offshore.” Studies have instead examined farms at a variety of distances from shore, water depths, and current speeds. This inconsistency makes it challenging to home in on best practices in the field.

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Froelich and her team did confirm that offshore farms offer some improvement over coastal systems when it comes to pollution. They found that there is a negligible impact of nitrogen pollution from fish waste 90 meters away from an offshore farm, for instance.

Overall, she is pleased that NOAA’s guidelines align with her research. The agency’s standards state that farms should be at minimum 90 to 100 meters from sensitive ecological areas with a seafloor depth that is double the cage height and current speeds greater than 0.05 meter per second but typically less than 1.6 meter per second.

“These seem to be consistent and good standards by which NOAA evaluates how something would potentially impact the surrounding environment,” Froelich told Civil Eats.

In addition, NOAA says they will have a stringent permitting system to ensure companies comply with the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, National Marine Sanctuaries Act, and other environmental protections. For the 19 potential areas selected in Southern California and the Gulf of Mexico, NOAA says they used geospatial analysis to select locations that would not overlap with protected and sensitive habitats, productive fishing areas, or oil and gas extraction.

NOAA also pledged to “apply world-class science to address key issues to support the current U.S. aquaculture industry, and to drive its future sustainable development.”

One major concern is fish escapement, as there is little known about its effects in the offshore environments. “We will always have escapes. It is a guarantee.”

But according to many critics, the science is sorely lacking for offshore aquaculture, in part because it is still relatively new. Aside from Norway and China, most countries only have small, pilot-scale programs in place.

Froelich’s top concern is fish escapement, as there is little known about its effects in the offshore environments. “We will always have escapes,” she says. “It is a guarantee.” In fact, escapes may be more likely in offshore sites because the nets are exposed to strong ocean currents. Froelich points to instances where escaped farm fish have died off because they couldn’t survive in the wild.

But she adds that there are examples, in Norway for instance, where farmed fish have thrived, mated with the native fish, and ultimately threatened the gene pool of the local species. Some of that might be avoided through proper location selection, however.

Another challenge some scientists have observed is offshore operations may interfere with the behavior of larger predators. In a study released in January, scientists found that a fish farm off the west coast of Hawaii impacted the behavior of bottlenose dolphins, who were visiting frequently and exhibiting aggression to other dolphins in the area.

“These farms create unnatural ecosystems that wouldn’t normally be there and that ends up attracting top predators, like dolphins and sharks,” says Geoff Schester, senior scientist at Oceana, a nonprofit dedicated to influencing policy to preserve the world’s oceans. In some cases, he says, the presence of aquaculture operations can make these animals more aggressive, which will require human intervention.

Research Priorities Favor Industry, Critics Say

Despite the first wave of site selections being offshore, NOAA is not limiting aquaculture to the marine environment, nor to federal waters. On June 1, the agency announced a partnership with Alaska to develop aquaculture sites in the nearshore waters surrounding the state. “Part of the reason we’re going to Alaska is that we got significant interest from the state,” says Blacklock.

The partnership suggests that offshore aquaculture development is just a starting point for NOAA as the agency pursues partnerships for land-based and nearshore fish farms. And while coastal locations have all the known risks of open-pen aquaculture, again, the agency says it will use science about best practices to lead the way.

NOAA’s Blacklock says the agency has funded engineers to design better net pens and genetics experts to model the potential impacts of wild stocks interbreeding with foreign populations. Through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), they are required to consider the environmental impacts of their major proposed actions, including identifying Aquaculture Opportunity Areas.

“It is a great concern to us that NOAA is supporting research and development rather than actually looking at the negative impacts on the environment, coastal communities, fishing, and fish populations.”

Critics maintain that the science is lacking, however. As Natsoulas sees it, NOAA prioritizes the industry’s needs over those of the environment and that approach is reflected in its research priorities. Don’t Cage Our Oceans tracked the projects NOAA granted funds to between 2017 and 2022 and found that it spent over $28 million on projects that benefit the offshore fish farming industry.

On the list were grants for projects that improve technology for hatcheries, for example, or those that improve consumer acceptance of farmed fish and are funded by NOAA’s Sea Grants program. Few, she says, are looking closely at potential for harm.

“It is a great concern to us that NOAA is supporting research and development rather than actually looking at the negative impacts on the environment, coastal communities, fishing, and fish populations,” says Natsoulas.

No Free Lunch

For some, one of the most concerning aspects of the planned aquaculture scale-up is its carbon emissions and impact on the food web. For Oceana’s Shester, it comes down to “the feed problem.” Most large fish farmed today, like salmon, eat other fish. So, harvesting enough fish feed without overfishing is tricky.

“We have to catch fish to feed fish,” says Jennifer Jacquet, an environmental studies professor at New York University. Jacquet points out that the number of fish in the oceans stays consistent over time and adding more predatory fish through aquaculture is tipping the balance because they require such a large number of smaller prey fish—a shift that could have an impact on seabirds and communities than rely on those fish for subsistence.

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Schester echoes these concerns in places like Peru and West Africa, where anchovies and sardines are being caught for feed. “We are trading off food security in [developing] countries so we can have feed for high-end farmed fish consumed by First World countries,” he says.

Some producers have switched to land-based protein sources, such as soymeal and soy oil. But Schester says that approach creates a similar dilemma: taking protein from arable land that could directly feed people and turning it into fish feed. “There is no free lunch when it comes to fish farming,” he adds.

Proponents of aquaculture say companies have made vast improvements in feed, using other sources of protein to replace fish meal. They also use things like microalgae, bacteria, and insects to minimize the need for wild-caught fish.

“Feeds now include soy, and they’re even working on seaweed going into fish feeds now,” says Winters. “That equation has really changed.” Most of these approaches aren’t ready for prime time yet, but researchers say the push to increase aquaculture production here could drive new fish feed innovations.

Aquaculture’s proponents also often compare their systems to beef or pork farming, pointing to the industry’s relatively low water use and greenhouse gas emissions.

NOAA’s Blacklock positions aquaculture as one of the most efficient forms of food production on the planet. “We have to zoom out the microscope a little bit and look at what the impact of the whole food system is, and then start seeing the ocean as part of the solution,” she says.

But the data doesn’t necessarily back this up. A 2021 study that detailed the impact of land-based and aquatic food production found that aquatic systems also put considerable pressure on the planet. The researchers mapped the impact of each agriculture sector on four measures including greenhouse gas emissions, freshwater use, habitat disturbance, and nutrient pollution.

They then compared each sector’s cumulative score or “footprint” and found that aquatic systems produce only 1.1 percent of food worldwide but take up 9.9 percent of the global footprint. Aquaculture’s current infrastructure, feed requirements, and excretion pollution are considerable, with farmed shrimp and salmon having the biggest impacts.

What researchers like Jacquet worry about is how this footprint will increase as the aquaculture sector expands. “It is low production, but that doesn’t mean it is low impact,” she says.

Into the Future

While it’s not yet clear exactly how and to what degree offshore aquaculture will be developed, it is likely to emerge as a much larger part of America’s seafood industry than it is today. Despite a lack of evidence-based practices and its focus on research that benefits the industry, Blacklock says NOAA is committed to studying the environmental, societal, and economic impacts of this expansion and committed to monitoring and improving on those impacts.

“We take concerns related to the sustainability of our entire food system very seriously,” she says. “We have to look at the ocean for the solution to our food system’s problems. Whether it’s wild-harvested or farmed, that is where we see the lowest impacts to the environment.”

In June, when NOAA announced its plans for increasing aquaculture in Alaska, it also pledged to seek out public opinion and compile data on the best possible sites. Just as it has taken years to make the plan for Southern California and the Gulf of Mexico, Blacklock says it will be years before the farms are built in the land of the midnight sun. Meanwhile, regulators there may have to brace themselves for more public protest as the news ripples throughout the state—and down to the lower 48.

Monique Brouillette is an independent journalist. Her articles have appeared in National Geographic, Scientific American, TIME, The Boston Globe, WIRED magazine, Nature, Science, Quanta, and Downeast Magazine. Monique received a Pulitzer Crisis Grant in 2022 to travel to southcentral Alaska and report on the efforts of the Alaska Native Tribes to regain authority over the conservation efforts on their lands. She has also appeared on NPR's All Things Considered to talk about animal spillover events and how they contribute to pandemics. Monique has a bachelor's degree in Biology and a Master of Science in Public Health Communication from Tufts University Medical School. She spent several years as a researcher in genetics and neuroscience labs at MIT. Read more >

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