Three weeks ago, the U.S. government released its national marine aquaculture policy. The policy is a big step in the right direction toward eliminating the bureaucracy that has quashed aquaculture’s growth potential, especially in the open ocean, say those in the industry. But the clock is ticking, they warn, and if the United States doesn’t embrace aquaculture now, there won’t be much of an industry left in 10 or 15 years.

Dave Conley, who has more than 36 years of aquaculture experience, is among those who agree that time is running out. As senior consultant and founding partner of Ottawa-based Aquaculture Communications Group, Conley and co-founder Tor-Eddie Fossbakk advise companies, organizations and governments on aquaculture-related matters, especially as they apply to science, technology and public relations.

I caught up with Conley recently to talk about why now is such a critical time for the U.S. aquaculture industry and what the United States risks if the regulatory obstacles that exist now are not removed.

Hedlund: Why is the United States losing out on aquaculture, especially in the open ocean? Is the lack of a regulatory framework the No. 1 factor preventing aquaculture from expanding in U.S. waters? 

Conley: At this year’s Aquaculture America in New Orleans [in late February and early March] there was a fellow who stood up and said, “I’m a bait farmer, and I am spending 40 percent of my time dealing with regulatory paperwork. I cannot run my business. I’m trying to make a living, and [regulatory obstacles] are killing me. If this keeps up and I don’t get any regulatory relief, then we won’t be having this conference in a few years because there won’t be any of us left.” That was a very compelling cry for help. 

Who would invest in an industry that has so much controversy around it? Never mind the regulatory [challenges], just the controversy around it. Why is there so much of a campaign to discredit [aquaculture]? It seems fairly innocuous. It’s just growing food that people want to eat.

Do you envision the anti-aquaculture rhetoric in the United States ever going away? A new report out of Southeast Asia found that aquaculture is more efficient and less environmentally damaging than other forms of animal protein production. Yet many in the public and environmental community still discredit aquaculture. 

The fundamental problem here is we’re [at risk of] of a food crisis, both in North America and in the developing world. Yet, for some reason, we would rather have a nice view from an oceanside cottage. And that view can include fishing boats and yachts, but it can’t include shellfish farm buoys and net-pen cages. And it’s difficult to understand that. The anti-aquaculture camp says, “We can’t disagree with aquaculture because we don’t like the look of it, so we’ll have to go after the environmental downsides of it, even if we have to manufacture them.”

Here we can provide a food that’s efficient [to farm], that’s healthier, that employs people, that’s very science and technology oriented [and] that’s very attractive to young people. Aquaculture has so much going for it, but we just can’t seem to light a fire under the imagination of the American public. 

At last year’s Aquaculture 2010 conference in San Diego, Neil Sims, co-founder of Kona Blue Water Farms and president of the Ocean Stewards Institute said, “This is not a debate between fish farmers and environmentalists. This is a debate between environmentalists and preservationists, who would prefer that we do nothing. We need to propagate the message that aquaculture, if done right, is part of the solution.” Do you agree with Sims?  

People in the aquaculture industry say, “We’re the stewards of the ocean, because if things go crazy we’re out of business. So it’s not in our best interest to pollute the areas that we work in. What we really need to work on is the best way to do things.”

Look at the amount of money that’s been spent by aquaculture opponents over the last 20 years. If that money had been spent on R&D, can you imagine what we would have today? We would have an industry that would be far and away the most sophisticated on the planet. The United States has all of the resources, the coastlines, the people, the educational institutions, the technology — all of the ingredients are there. But it’s as if there’s no political or public will to support the growth and development of this industry. To me, it defies logic. There’s no rational explanation why this industry isn’t greater than it is today.

And it’s a big disappointment to many. They went into this with very high hopes, and many have become discouraged. People ask us, “Well, what have you learned by being involved in aquaculture in the United States and Canada?” And we say, “Life is too short. Go to South America. Go to Southeast Asia. Go anywhere else but North America, because it’s not open for business. And I know people that have tried to build businesses in the United States or Canada, and they’re banging their heads against the walls. And you see other people go down to Belize or Ecuador or now Argentina, and they’re making money and they’re doing what they want to do. But they would much rather do it here. Their families are here; their friends are here. But the opportunities are not here. The encouragement from the government is not here. The funding for the R&D is not here.

Hypothetically, say the regulatory obstacles that exist now vanish and it’s far easier to operate a fish farm in U.S. waters. Are the other challenges — such as high labor and production costs — surmountable? 

Look at Norway. The cost of living in Norway compared the United States [is much higher], and they’re making a lot of money farming salmon in Norway. So you should be able to farm salmon in the United States and make money at it, because the market is right there; you don’t have to ship it across the Atlantic or air-freight it. Look at the cost of oil. When we see the cost of a barrel of oil go through the roof, it’s not going to be cheap to ship anything anywhere. And in that case, you would want to be growing as much food as you could at home.

To me, it’s a food security issue. Corporations have outsourced a lot of stuff to cheap-labor countries or countries that offer less-stringent regulations. But that’s going to come back to bite us big time. As these countries’ middle classes grow, all that seafood that’s now coming to the United States probably won’t be coming here anymore because people there will be able to afford it. And we will be competing on a global market, paying higher prices. We’re backing ourselves into a corner, and we’re losing out on the opportunity every day. The longer that we delay in getting on with the job, the harder the job is going to be. This is not a story that’s being talked about.

What’s the motivation behind the anti-aquaculture camp? 

It’s a matter of whether you see [aquaculture as] an opportunity or a threat. For people that oppose aquaculture, I really don’t know what their motivation is. All human endeavors are basically trial and error. We try it, we see what happens, we refine it and we get better at it. The first airplane isn’t like the airplane you’re flying in today. What if everyone had said, “We’re not going to allow an airplane to be built until it’s perfect.” To me, that’s a bogus argument. No human in history has lived like that. We are changing the rules [with regards to aquaculture]. It doesn’t make any sense. We need to get on with the job. The only way you’re going to know how to do it better is if you start.

Editor’s note: Click here to read my commentary “Clock’s ticking.”

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