Experts laud climate benefits of proposed US expansion offshore fish farming

Published on
July 19, 2021
A fish farm in the United States.

Earlier this month, the American Fisheries Society and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) presented a congressional briefing on developing marine aquaculture to build climate resistance and climate-friendly food production.

According to panelists, the world will need about 60 percent more food by the year 2050 in order to keep feeding a growing population, including 60 percent more animal protein by 2030.

Expansion of the aquaculture industry – and especially the offshore aqauculture sector – could a sigificant step forward in addressing that global need, according to  Jesse Trushenski, the chief science officer and vice president of animal welfare for Filer, Idaho, U.S.A., Riverence, the largest trout- farming company in the country.

“We could feed a couple billion more people with more chicken and pork and beef,” Trushenski said. “But if we're going to do that, it's going to mean a lot more feedlots and a lot more acres in crop production. And that has consequences for fish as well as the climate.”

Aquaculture, she said, can accomplish that with a lower environmental impact.

“Aquaculture can help us to produce the additional food that we need, with a smaller carbon footprint, less consumption of fresh water, and reduced emissions of greenhouse gases,” she said.

Seth Theuerkauf, a science coordinator with NOAA’s Office of Aquaculture, agreed, noting that the opportunity to expand aquaculture in the U.S. is a unique and important one in the wake of continuing climate change.

“Climate change is really posing a number of significant threats to humanity, and our global food production systems are not immune to those impacts. Nearly every day, we see a few headlines about climate impacts,” he said. “The bottom line is that there is a lot to be fearful of with regards to the realized and potential impacts of climate change, particularly on our food systems. NOAA recognizes that the growth of marine aquaculture is a critical path forward to ensuring our domestic food and nutritional security.”

Theuerkauf said while seafood accounts for nearly 40 percent of all animal protein consumed globally, the U.S. is ranked 17th in the world, with only about 500,000 metric tons of aquaculture production, relative to the global total of about 110 million tons of seafood. The U.S. also imports about 70 percent of its domestically consumed seafood.

“While we're not major aquaculture producers domestically, we are still major farmed seafood consumers,” Theuerkauf said. “We really have an opportunity here to increase domestic contributions of marine aquaculture to improve our food security and ensure the resiliency of our food production system.”

In order to be successful, different sectors of the food economy should be fighting each other to convince the public of their worth.

“I really want us collectively to begin to really focus less on pitting one sector versus another, fisheries versus aquaculture and seafood versus livestock,” Theuerkauf said. “And instead, we really need to be focused on sustainably optimizing contributions from all slices of this portfolio of our global and domestic food production system.”

In light of ongoing climate change, Theuerkauf said, the focus needs to be on sustainably maintaining and optimizing the contributions from all food production sectors – any one could be hit with a climate change related disruption at any time.

While the U.S. ranks pretty low on the global farmed seafood production rankings, it has optimal space for a growing marine aquaculture industry, Theuerkauf said.

Rebecca Gentry, a postdoctoral researcher at Florida State University, specializes in aquaculture development and has been studying spaces in the U.S. where aquaculture development could be profitable, have a low impact on ocean health, and not interfere with other ocean uses. She said proper spatial planning of marine aquaculture development can be achieved through existing data, models, and decision support tools.

During a project focused on marine spatial planning for aquaculture in Southern California, Gentry and her team modeled aquaculture profitability along with environmental effects, conflicts with fishing operations, and impacts on ocean health. Based on this analysis, the team created a hotspot map that shows locations that are generally more suitable for aquaculture development in terms of maximizing aquaculture benefits while minimizing impacts.

“One important conclusion from this modeling work in Southern California is that marine aquaculture can be extremely space-efficient," Gentry said. "It does not take very much ocean space to produce a lot of seafood."

According to a global scale analysis led by Gentry, the U.S. could grow all seafood consumed domestically using just 0.01 percent of its exclusive economic zone.

“Since it doesn't take that much space to farm a lot of seafood, we have the flexibility to use the best available information to [place] aquaculture in the best places,” she said.

Each webinar speaker, while specializing in different aspects of aquaculture, had the same premise: the U.S. needs to work to expand marine aquaculture to take advantage of the economic opportunity and keep up with global food needs.

Photo courtesy of Washington Department of Ecology

Reporting from Portland, Oregon

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