NOAA ‘opens the door’ for US aquaculture expansion

Published on
January 14, 2016

Commercial aquaculture could soon be coming to the Gulf of Mexico thanks to a final rule from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which will allow companies to develop fish farms in the region.

The rule is reflective of NOAA’s overarching commitment to the expansion of aquaculture’s role in the nation’s seafood supply. It will allow for up to 20 facilities and 64 million pounds (29,000 metric tons) of fish to be produced every year by aquaculture farms in the Gulf. The organization hopes the rule will serve to “open the door” for other areas.

"As demand for seafood continues to rise, aquaculture presents a tremendous opportunity not only to meet this demand, but also to increase opportunities for the seafood industry and job creation," NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan said in a statement. "Expanding U.S. aquaculture in federal waters complements wild harvest fisheries and supports our efforts to maintain sustainable fisheries and resilient oceans.”

The rule has been in the works for a while – the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council initially approved a plan for aquaculture in 2009. However, it wasn’t until 2014 that NOAA proposed regulations. Released on 12 January, the final rule will permit the council to now manage aquaculture in the same way it manages fish stocks.

Several organizations have responded to NOAA’s newfound regulative standard. The Ocean Stewards Institute welcomed the Final Rule to Implement the Fishery Management Plan (FMP) for Offshore Marine Aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico. The institute noted that the rule represents “more than a decade’s work on this issue by the Ocean Stewards Institute and a number of other industry partners, the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council, and other Federal agencies.”

“Let’s celebrate this important milestone,” said Neil Anthony Sims, President of the Ocean Stewards Institute and Co-CEO of Kampachi Farms, “but recognize that there is a lot of work that still needs to be done to build a responsible aquaculture industry in the offshore waters of the Gulf, to bring back America’s working waterfronts, to create the seafood jobs that we need, and to make the U.S. seafood self-sufficient.”

The American Soybean Association (ASA), which represents the nation’s soybean farmers who often produce fish feeds with their prominent crop, applauded the final rule: “ASA supports this plan as the first step to realizing offshore aquaculture development and growth in federal waters,” said ASA President Richard Wilkins, a farmer from Greenwood, Del. “The final rule today sets us on a course to development of the promising marine aquaculture industry in the United States, which has so much room to grow.”

“As the domestic offshore aquaculture industry grows, it creates multiple positives for American consumers, workers and farmers alike,” added Wilkins. “It creates and supports jobs in coastal communities and all along the inland supply chain to retail and foodservice; it generates an American-grown source of nutritious and in-demand protein; and it further expands a growing market for the meal that we as farmers produce on our farms.”

Many environmental groups have objected to the drafting of a framework before testing out aquaculture in various regions in the past. “Critics also worry that such farms could compete with fishermen or affect the wild species they harvest,” reported EE News.

Groups like Food & Water Watch and the Recirculating Farms Coalition are currently exploring the possibility of legal opposition, arguing that the final rule could not only put wildlife at risk, but it also may not even be relevant any longer.

"Just like factory farms on land, industrial offshore fish farms risk the health and welfare of communities, the environment and wildlife," said Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch. "This plan to allow a private industry to abuse our public resources must stop now."

"Offshore industrial fish farming is outdated and unnecessary,” added Marianne Cufone, long-time fisheries expert, environmental attorney and executive director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition. "It took nearly 11 years to finalize this law, too much has changed for it to be relevant now."

"This is a misguided decision," said George Kimbrell, senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety. "We need to better manage and protect our native fisheries, not adopt destructive industrial practices that put them at risk."

NOAA will be conducting the expansion of aquaculture in the Gulf cautiously, it said. Farms will not be allowed to overlap in marine protection areas or coral reefs, and permits will require ongoing inspection. What’s more, farming of only native local species like red drum, cobia and almaco jack will be permitted. Genetically modified/engineered fish are prohibited by the final rule.

As many as 20 farms will be able to set up cages in federal waters, each with a 10-year permit that is renewable in five-year increments. Those with permits will also be able maintain a hatchery.

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