Industry group pushing for more aquaculture in the United States

When it comes to aquaculture in the United States, there’s a sea of opportunity.

Seas of opportunity, really.

Since the United States boasts the second-largest exclusive enterprise zone in the world – meaning it has proprietary marine resource rights over an area totaling roughly 4.4 million square miles in three oceans, the Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico – aquaculture would seem like an ideal industry for the country. That’s especially true since America’s coastlines are home to a variety of seafood species.

However, as aquaculture has witnessed exponential growth worldwide in recent years, the United States really has not been a significant player in the industry. According to the World Bank, aquaculture produced more than 106 million metric tons (MT) of seafood in 2015. That’s more than double the seafood farms created in 2003 and more than 50 times the yield reported in 1960. 

In 1960, the United States ranked fourth in the world, harvesting 104,421 metric tons of the more than two million MT produced worldwide.

In 2015, America was responsible for just 426,000 MT – or just 0.4 percent of the worldwide harvest. That put the it 18th in the world in aquaculture production, trailing such countries as Ecuador, Malaysia, and North Korea. 

By contrast, the United States ranks No. 1 in the world in poultry and beef production.

Aquaculture supporters say there’s a major reason for that discrepancy. Don Kent, the president and CEO of Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, told SeafoodSource his organization has tried for more than a decade to develop a small fish farm off the Southern California coast, but so far to no avail.

“In a lot of ways, what we’re trying to do in aquaculture is just growing another kind of food. We already know how to grow chickens and pigs. We know how to grow vegetables, and we even know how to grow catfish and trout. We have regulations for handling that,” he said. “What we don’t have is permission to go out into ocean and use the ocean in a sustainable way.”

That’s why a new trade group has emerged to promote aquaculture in the United States. Stronger America Through Seafood – represented by officials from such companies as Cargill, Pacific Seafood, Red Lobster, and High Liner Foods – sees aquaculture as a way to provide Americans increased access to seafood products that are both sustainable and affordable.

Margaret Henderson, the group’s campaign director, told SeafoodSource that the organization came together after industry leaders were encouraged by some of the positions expressed by federal officials regarding increased domestic seafood production. At the same time, Henderson said those same industry leaders looked around and saw no private-sector organization championing those efforts.

A 15-member board of directors governs Stronger America Through Seafood with Kathryn Unger, the managing director for Cargill’s North American aquaculture operations, serving as its president. On the group’s website, the board, through its corporate support, seeks “to influence U.S. policymakers to implement legislation rescinding unnecessary industry wide regulations.” 

The Trump Administration has expressed repeatedly its desire to see more aquaculture and seafood production domestically. The Department of Commerce, which oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NOAA Fisheries, included a plan to grow U.S. aquaculture production in its four-year strategic plan, saying the industry can play a vital role in improving the country’s food security and reducing the trade deficit. 

Currently, the U.S. imports about 90 percent of the seafood Americans consume, and last year, the trade deficit for seafood alone ran up to USD 15.8 billion (EUR 13.6 billion).

“NOAA supports advancing the ocean aquaculture industry,” Jennie Lyons, a NOAA Fisheries spokeswoman told SeafoodSource. “Doing so will increase the availability of local, sustainably-sourced seafood, complement our wild capture fisheries, and provide new economic opportunities for U.S. coastal communities.”

In recent weeks, though, the biggest federal policy news affecting seafood has been the talk of increasing tariffs on seafood imported from China. While Stronger America Through Seafood doesn’t take a position on tariffs – Henderson noted that many of the companies involved do business globally – she said the issue does help the cause for increasing opportunities for domestic production.

The U.S. imports so much of its seafood because, Henderson said, aquaculture companies are “effectively prohibited” from working in federal waters as potential projects must receive approval from a number of federal agencies, including NOAA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and Environmental Protection Agency, before being able to move forward.

“There is no clear framework for allowing offshore development of aquaculture, so therefore while the rest of the world is growing and evolving and exploring the open ocean as an opportunity to farm our own fish, the U.S. continues with business as usual,” she said. “And as our population and our appetites increase, we become increasingly dependent on foreign production.”

In June, Stronger America Through Seafood came out in support of a bill filed by U.S. Senators Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida) that would streamline the permitting process for aquaculture projects seeking to operate in federal waters. The Advancing the Quality and Understanding of American Aquaculture – or AQUAA – Act would create an Office of Marine Aquaculture within NOAA that would coordinate the permitting process across all federal agencies. 

Presently, Henderson said U.S. Representative Steven Palazzo (R-Mississippi) is working on a companion bill to go through the House of Representatives. One of the ways Stronger America Through Seafood is supporting that effort is by working to recruit a Democratic co-sponsor for the legislation. The group is reaching out to environmentally focused non-government organizations in hopes of securing minority party support.

Henderson said the pursuit of domestic aquaculture projects aligns with the missions of many environmental groups that want more sustainable fisheries.

“It is absolutely a bipartisan issue,” she said. “We see development of offshore aqua as an environmentally sustainable solution to increasing seafood consumption, and it’s critical that we have Democrats on board with us as we move down the policy making path.”


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