New bipartisan caucus pushing progress on aquaculture issues on Capitol Hill

Published on
February 9, 2023
U.S. Rep. Kat Cammack (R-Florida).

A new congressional aquaculture caucus is pushing to make American aquaculture more competitive globally through legislative initiatives in Washington D.C.

Thirteen members of the U.S. House of Representatives formed the inaugural class of the caucus in December 2022: U.S. Reps. Salud Carbajal (D-California), Jerry Carl (R-Alabama), Buddy Carter (R-Georgia), Scott Franklin (R-Florida), French Hill (R-Arkansas), Maria Salazar (R-Florida), Abigail Spanberger (D-Virginia), Rob Wittman (R-Virginia), Ed Case (D-Hawaii), Steven Palazzo (R-Mississippi), Jimmy Panetta (D-California), and Kat Cammack (R-Florida), Case, Palazzo, Panetta, and Cammack are co-chairing the caucus.

The House aquaculture caucus was established “as a resource and forum to educate members of Congress about the economic opportunities that an expanded U.S. aquaculture industry would provide congressional districts nationwide,” according to Stronger America Through Seafood (SATS),  a trade group formed in 2018 to promote aquaculture in the United States. The group’s membership includes Cargill, Sysco, Red Lobster, Pacific Seafoods, High Liner Foods, Innovasea, Fortune Fish, Blue Ocean Mariculture, Pacifico Aquaculture. SATS recently hired Drue Banta Winters, the policy director for the American Fisheries Society, as its campaign manager. 

“SATS thanks Reps. Cammack, Case, Palazzo, and Panetta for establishing a congressional caucus for lawmakers to learn about the benefits that a robust aquaculture industry would provide communities nationwide,” Red Lobster General Counsel and SATS Advisor Horace Dawson III said in a press release. “The growth of American aquaculture would create new jobs across the seafood supply chain while supplying our communities with local, sustainable seafood. For the U.S. to realize the full economic potential of aquaculture, federal legislation is needed.”

The congressional leaders of the initiative said they’re hoping to break through partisan gridlock in Washington D.C. to advance an industry brimming with potential.

“Aquaculture has always held great promise to help us achieve our broader goals of creating sustainable food systems and responsibly managing our marine resources," Case said. "Congress should focus more directly on how best to mold federal policy to realize the full potential of American aquaculture. Our new Aquaculture Caucus will provide that focus as we clarify often confusing and contradicting regulatory schemes while ensuring that we protect our marine environment.”

Palazzo, the lead sponsor of the Advancing the Quality and Understanding of American Aquaculture Act (AQUAA), which was first introduced in 2018 and unsuccessfully reintroduced in 2021, said growing the U.S. aquaculture sector would improve domestic food security.

"Since first introducing [AQUAA] in 2018, the conversation on expanding our nation's aquaculture industry has only grown," Palazzo said. "The fact of the matter is, the United States is missing out on an incredible economic and sustainable opportunity to grow aquaculture on our own shores, creating more American jobs. I’m proud to be a part of the new Aquaculture Caucus and look forward to the conversations and ideas this caucus moves forward."

Cammack, whose district recently shifted to include a portion of Florida’s North Gulf Coast, said she’s seen the good the industry can do to a local economy firsthand.

“In Florida, we've seen the benefits of aquaculture firsthand, breeding, raising, and harvesting shellfish, fish, and aquatic plants in our waters. We've demonstrated that it's possible to provide healthy, fresh food that's produced sustainably at home to support our growing population," Cammack said. “The Aquaculture Caucus shares our enthusiasm for pushing these industries and their innovations forward while growing our infrastructure and market domestically."

Cammack said she wants to see Florida – where Ocean Era is hoping to launch an offshore aquaculture operation and where state officials are pushing NOAA to create an aquaculture opportunity area become a leader of a national movement to embrace aquaculture as an industry that is “not only good for the economy, but great for domestic production of healthy, safe, fresh seafood grown on our shores.”

“Aquaculture is a critical industry for a variety of reasons,” Cammack told SeafoodSource. “First, food security is national security and a nation that cannot feed itself isn’t secure; domestic aquaculture provides opportunities for the American seafood industry to strengthen itself and to grow less reliant on imports from other countries. Next, Florida is one of the leading states for aquaculture in the U.S. and will only grow more important with new aquaculture operations opening statewide. The Sunshine State can be a leader and an example to other states of just how important domestic independence truly is.”

But Cammack said the industry has been frustrated by a complex permitting process caused by overlapping jurisdictional oversight from numerous federal agencies. She said the new caucus plans to tackle some of the problems that have thwarted development of the sector.

“The aquaculture industry faces a bevy of unique challenges. Burdensome regulations have inhibited much of the industries’ growth so far, and congressional champions who recognize aquaculture’s importance will help to champion legislation that allows aquaculture to thrive in the U.S.,” Cammack said. “If we want to be a leader in producing our own food sources and keeping conservation as a top priority, supporting a growing populations, and lessening our dependence on foreign seafood, we need to keep speaking up about the good this will do for our economy. “

Cammack noted aquaculture is a relatively unique issue in Washington given it has support (and opposition) from both Democrats and Republicans. She said she’s confident laws supporting domestic aquaculture expansion can be passed. 

“Without question,” she said. “The fact that the aquaculture caucus was just launched and has support from both parties, in both leadership and membership, is a testament to how this issue shouldn’t be a partisan one. We have a vested interest in making sure we support these industries that are safe, sustainable, and ready to help our nation move into a new phase with healthy, fresh seafood for all.”

Chris Stock, the global director of aquaculture sales at Gardners, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.-based Ziegler Brothers, and SATS vice president, told SeafoodSource he hopes the caucus can move the needle on legislation that is needed to jump-start the industry but which has found itself mired in bureaucratic red tape.

This raises the profile and increases visibility of aquaculture in Washington and nationally, and that's a milestone. A number of members of SATS has been advocating for offshore aquaculture for a very long time, I would say a decade in many cases, and we haven't had a lot of results,” Stock said. “When you have members of Congress coming together to create a caucus, it signals to other members of the House and Senate that this is an issue that some people are taking very seriously and this is an opportunity to impact our country. I envision this caucus as becoming something that is much more significant going forward because it touches on so many issues that are significant to both parties – supply chains, food safety and security, human health, the trade deficit, job creation … So I think this caucus is really going to crystallize some of the efforts on all those fronts and it will start to generate its own momentum from this great foundation we have.”

Stock noted the initial members of the caucus represent districts from coast to coast, including several landlocked districts. He said the success of the caucus in making headway in Washington will be dependent on convincing more lawmakers from the center of the country that aquaculture is an important issue.

“We need to tie aquaculture into the economic future of the heartland as well as the coastland,” Stock said. “At first glance, aquaculture is a coastal issue, but I think SATS has been successful in helping members of Congress really recognize that this is something that affects everybody from coast to coast. Sales of soybeans, for example, or some of these grains that go into feed, can only go up with a robust domestic aquaculture scene. And people on the Hill like to emphasize regaining control of supply chains, especially for our food, so we can produce it in an environment that we regulate and have adequate oversight of.”

With its ability to reuse older industrial infrastructure, the aquaculture industry has the potential to revive parts of the country that have decayed due to lack of investment, Stock said.

Stock said a few federal elected officials have “calcified” positions on aquaculture, but that generally, most don’t feel strongly about it one way or another. He said that represents an opportunity for the industry, especially in a country that typically finds itself fiercely divided on many issues politically.

“Certainly there are members that are more influenced by opposition groups. But I do think, generally, minds are not made up and mostly are open. I think most people are leaning towards seeing a lot of good and a lot of potential in aquaculture,” he said. “If you go back to the origins of the aquaculture industry advocating in Washington, it was strictly trying to educate people as to what the word aquaculture meant. We're now fortunately in a place where the word aquaculture is understood, even in those offices where they don't have a position. Now [members of congress] are a little more willing to engage and be receptive. And we're at a point now where we're many [members of Congress] have come to recognize that this is an important way forward.”

Republican control of the House gives Stock hopes the AQUAA Act will be reintroduced in the current congressional session, but he acknowledged achieving its passage will be “tricky.”

“It takes both sides, obviously. And we're confident that we can find support from members on both sides,” he said. “The mindset of our group is you have to push forward and go forward in the belief that you're going to get a shot. And we're making incremental progress. I think we're moving the marker a bit further every year. And if you have a shot at it, it's worth the effort, because the issue is so important. So we're going to stick with it and keep pushing, and I think the caucus will play an important role with that, serving as a megaphone for the cause.”

Despite its importance, Stock said it’s vital for both SATS and the Aquaculture Caucus not to define the AQUAA Act as their raison d'être.

“Certainly the passage of the AQUAA Act is a primary objective, I think, of SATS and the caucus members. But I think there's a lot of issues with aquaculture that need to be addressed,” he said. ““We have to take the longer perspective that SATS and hopefully this caucus will serve the needs of aquaculture beyond a bill. Aquaculture is such a significant form of agriculture globally, and we're so far behind in the U.S. Making aquaculture a more significant part of the U.S. economy and food system could be such a benefit to the country. That should be the goal and that is what I would hope we’ll all continue to work for.”

Photo courtesy of WikiMedia Commons

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