Can open-ocean aquaculture reach its potential?


Steven Hedlund

Published on
March 3, 2010

Editor’s note: SeafoodSource Editor Steven Hedlund is in San Diego this week reporting from the World Aquaculture Society’s Aquaculture 2010 conference.

The challenges facing open-ocean aquaculture — and the industry’s potential for growth — was a hot-button issue at the World Aquaculture Society’s Aquaculture 2010 conference in San Diego on Wednesday.

In U.S. waters, perhaps the two biggest obstacles are the lack of a regulatory framework and opposition from environmental NGOs.

Neil Sims, co-founder and president of Kona Blue Water Farms, which raises Kona Kampachi®, a Hawaiian yellowtail, off Hawaii’s Big Island, called on conference participants to become not just advocates but also activists.

“There are more than 20,000 marine species,” said Sims. “We have barely begun to scratch the surface. We should not be weighed down by the concerns of those who have focused exclusively on Atlantic salmon in the Pacific Northwest. We should be viewing these issues from a global perspective. We should be claiming the moral high ground.”

“Aquaculture is not part of the problem,” he added. “We need to promote the wider debate about the future of seafood … and the future of the oceans. This is not a debate between fish farmers and environmentalists. Damn it, I am an environmentalist. That’s why I got involved in this industry. This is a debate between environmentalists and preservationist, who would prefer that we do nothing. We need to propagate the message that aquaculture, if done right, is part of the solution. We need to become activists.”

The other major challenge the open-ocean aquaculture industry faces is the lack of a regulatory framework in U.S. waters.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is developing a new aquaculture policy that would cover all types of marine aquaculture, said Susan Bunsick, lead policy analyst for NOAA’s aquaculture program. The policy will be available for public comment “very soon,” but Bunsick emphasized that the policy is not a law.

“The policy will guide NOAA’s decisions with respect to aquaculture,” said Bunsick. “This could include decisions to amend regulations or ask Congress to enact legislation. But the policy in and of itself would not carry the force of law. What it will do is provide context of all of NOAA’s activities related to aquaculture.”

In December, U.S. Rep Lois Capps (D-Calif.) introduced legislation that would establish a regulatory framework for open-ocean aquaculture.

“The absence of a national offshore aquaculture act to allow permitting is a hindrance, and there needs to be better coordination between state and federal agencies,” said Chris Langdon, a fisheries professors at Oregon State University.

The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Mass., learned firsthand just how arduous and lengthy the permitting process can be when it established four experimental open-ocean blue mussel farms in Rhode Island and Massachusetts — one in Narragansett Bay, one off Block Island and two off Martha’s Vineyard. The project — funded by a USD 214,000 (EUR 149,415) grant from NOAA and using a system pioneered by University of New Hampshire researchers — was fully up and running in December.

Scott Lindell, director of MBL’s scientific aquaculture program, said permitting for the Rhode Island sites took three months, while permitting for the Massachusetts sites took 16 months because of the number of local, state and federal agencies involved.

“The kicker was the Massachusetts Board Underwater Archaeological Resources — something we never considered. Basically their concern was that underwater Indiana Jones would find something valuable in a 100-feet of water. These are waters that are continually plowed by draggers anyway,” said Lindell, who headed up the project with Richard Karney, a shellfish biologist and director of Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group in Oak Bluffs, Mass., and Bill Silkes, president of American Mussel Harvesters in North Kingstown, R.I.

“But they said that all work should be under the supervision of a qualified archaeologist. That would cost tens of thousands of dollars,” said Lindell.

Fortunately for Lindell and his colleagues, the former Massachusetts aquaculture coordinator ended up becoming the state’s agriculture commissioner, and the project received the approval it required.

“For most regulators, it’s easy for them to say ‘no’ unless there’s pressure from above. It’s wasteful of public and private resources when you come down to it. If it hadn’t had been for Rick and myself donating our time, there’s no way that a small grower could go through this permitting process without losing [money],” explained Lindell.

“How do we fix the problem?” he asked. “Put an end to the confrontational relationship between regulators and applicants and keep an open dialog.”

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