Protests opposed to aquaculture target NOAA after release of scoping report

A graphic highlighting potential aquaculture sites in Southern California.

NOAA Fisheries released a scoping report on potential aquaculture sites off the coast of Southern California as part of an ongoing federal process to identify aquaculture sites, and was then faced with a small protest against fish farms.

Protesters converged on NOAA’s offices in Long Beach, California following the 29 March release of a scoping report on an environmental impact statement (EIS) covering potential aquaculture sites in Southern California’s Santa Barbara Channel and Santa Monica Bay. Protestors, the Santa Barbara Independent reported, had gravestones reading “RIP humpback whales” in protest of establishing any aquaculture sites in the region.

“The pollution surrounding fish farm sites such as these can create dead zones where there isn’t enough oxygen in the water to support even basic marine life,” Santa Barbara-Ventura Sierra Club Chair Katie Davis told the newspaper. “Developing fish farms off the coast of Santa Barbara is an ecological disaster just waiting to happen.”

The scoping report, and the potential for aquaculture net pens in Southern California, is the result of a multi-year process kicked off by former U.S. President Donald Trump in May 2020. Trump issued an executive order containing a number of recommendations for the seafood industry and fisheries management councils, including an update to the National Aquaculture Development Plan.

In that update, NOAA was ordered to establish new “Aquaculture Opportunity Areas.” The order tasked the Secretary of Commerce – in consultation with the “Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of the Interior, the Secretary of Agriculture, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, other appropriate Federal officials, and appropriate Regional Fishery Management Councils” – to examine and identify “at least two” geographic areas that could be suitable for commercial aquaculture.

Southern California was selected as one of the potential areas – along with portions of the Gulf of Mexico – leading into the next step of the process: Completing environmental impact statements (EIS).

Two years on from the site selection, and almost three from the executive order, NOAA released its public scoping report for the Southern California Aquaculture Opportunity Areas EIS on 29 March. Those eight sites selected by NOAA in the Santa Barbara Channel and Santa Monica Bay were themselves announced in 2021 in an “Aquaculture Opportunity Area Atlas.”  

NOAA’s report contains extensive comments from organizations in the region, including the Alliance of Communities for Sustainable Fisheries, AFFTA Fisheries Fund, Center for Food Safety, Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara Inc., and more. Many of those comments included concerns about the aquaculture sites, or outright opposition to establishing any aquaculture net pens off the coast of California.

Multiple fishing groups also requested NOAA pay careful attention to existing commercial fishing grounds when approving any aquaculture sites.

“Fishermen do not support aquaculture products that remove productive fishing grounds from harvest opportunity,” the Alliance of Communities for Sustainable Fisheries said in its comments to NOAA. “We have lost, and are continuing to use, areas to MPA’s [Marine Protected Areas], wind energy projects, telecommunication cables, shipping lanes, etc. These closures, plus temporary closures such as to avoid whale interactions, have already put California fishermen on the ropes.”

According to NOAA, multiple public comments specifically urged the agency to abandon any efforts to establish any aquaculture areas by choosing the “no action alternative.” No comments specifically supported establishing aquaculture in Santa Monica Bay, the agency added, but some supported choosing the Santa Barbara Channel.

NOAA’s ongoing aquaculture opportunity area process is still ongoing, and the original executive order will require NOAA and other relevant agencies to identify two more suitable spaces for aquaculture in the U.S.  

Image courtesy of NOAA


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