Center for Food Safety asks court to reverse US finfish aquaculture authorization

A photo of offshore aquaculture operations.

A coalition of conservationists, fishing organizations, and tribal groups has filed arguments in its effort to convince the U.S. court system to overturn a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decision allowing finfish aquaculture in U.S. oceans.

The Center for Food Safety (CFS) sued the Army Corps of Engineers in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in 2022 over nationwide permit 56, a blanket authorization of the construction of industrial ocean aquaculture facilities in several U.S. states. CFS maintains that the permit violates Congress’s constitutional authority over federal lands.

“The Army Corps admits that offshore industrial aquaculture poses serious risks to water quality, wildlife, and fisheries, yet went full steam ahead with moving this novel industry forward,” CFS Staff Attorney Jenny Loda said in a statement. “What’s more, Congress has not even authorized any federal agency to take this unprecedented step, opening the door to factory farming of the sea, replicating the same problems of land-based factory farms. We are asking the court to set aside this unlawful decision.”

“Nationwide permit 56 flies in the face of many states’ efforts to protect coastlines and marine life,” Wilf Fish Conservancy Executive Director Emma Helverson, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said in a statement. “Every U.S. state on the entire Pacific coast has banned or eliminated commercial open water net pens from state marine waters to prevent the devastating harm this industry poses to water quality, wild salmon, and the greater health of our marine ecosystems. In granting this nationwide permit to expand this industry in federal waters, the Army Corps is ignoring these clear and obvious risks and undermining the efforts of communities throughout the nation working tirelessly to protect their public waters.”

The coalition hopes that the court will declare the permit unlawful and invalidate it.

CFS won a victory in its battle against commercial aquaculture last month, when a court forced the Army Corps of Engineers to revoke national permit 48, a blanket authorization of commercial shellfish aquaculture in Washington state.

The Center for Food Safety scored a victory on 5 October with a court ruling allowing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to revoke its general permit for commercial shellfish operations in Washington state. The Corps has attempted to circumnavigate the issue by sending individual “letters of permission” to shellfish harvesters to continue operations. CFS is seeking to end that practice as well.

“The Corps cannot shift its permitting to non-public permits meant for minimally impactful activities to authorize hundreds of harmful industrial shellfish operations in Washington’s coastal waters,” CFS Senior Attorney Amy van Saun said. “Instead, the Corps must fully analyze the potential adverse and cumulative effects and provide public notice and comment before authorizing industrial shellfish operations in priceless habitat for fish, birds, and whales.”

At the same time, some lawmakers are pushing the Army Corps of Engineers to address a backlog of aquaculture permits. Lawmakers on the Senate Appropriations Committee included a provision in the report on the 2024 Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill requiring the Corps to brief the committee on its plans for fixing the backlog.

 “The committee recognizes the strain of resources on the Corps to review and certify permitting applications for nationwide 48 permits for state-specific aquaculture activities,” the committee said in the report. “The Corps is directed to address staffing shortages and reduce aquaculture permit application backlogs, particularly in the Northwestern division.”

According to a 2019 Government Accountability Office report, only 1 percent of aquaculture permit applications were rejected from 2012 to 2017.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock/Leonid Sorokin


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