Stakeholders weigh in on open-ocean aquaculture


Steven Hedlund

Published on
September 8, 2009

Open-ocean aquaculture was the focus of a U.S. House subcommittee hearing on Wednesday, a week after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced plans to establish a regulatory framework for open-ocean aquaculture in federal waters.

Eight individuals testified to the Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife, which is part of the House Natural Resources Committee and chaired by Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam).

Reaction to NOAA’s plans is mixed. Supporters say a regulatory framework is necessary to simplify and accelerate the permitting process. They also argued that open-ocean aquaculture will take pressure off of wild fish stocks, create jobs for fishermen and reduce the country’s dependence on imported seafood (roughly 85 percent of the U.S. seafood supply is imported).

“Responsible open-ocean mariculture is where the future of seafood lies,” said Neil Anthony Sims, president of the Ocean Stewards Institute and president of Kona Blue Water Farms, which raises sashimi-grade Kona Kampachi®, a Hawaiian yellowtail, off Hawaii’s Big Island.

“If the United States does not embrace … these much needed innovations and if we do not lead this industry forward, then we are doing our seafood economy a disservice. And we are also abrogating our responsibility as a steward of the oceans and a citizen of the planet,” said Sims. “If we do not pursue responsible open-ocean mariculture here in the United States, then, rest assured, it will happen elsewhere.”

James Balsiger, acting assistant administrator of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, also advocated for a regulatory framework for open-ocean aquaculture.

“A strong, comprehensive framework that addresses federal agency responsibilities in both coastal and offshore areas will offer the regulatory certainty that industry needs while safeguarding the marine environment, as well as create economic opportunities for Americans,” said Balsiger. “The Unites States must take the initiative to become more self-sufficient in the production of healthy seafood, provide jobs for coastal communities and reduce the seafood trade deficit.”

The environmental community and commercial-fishing interests urged NOAA and the subcommittee to craft the regulatory framework carefully to ensure the ecosystem remains unharmed.

“Now is the time for strong leadership from Congress on the future of open-ocean aquaculture in the United States,” said Dr. George Leonard, director of the Ocean Conservancy’s Aquaculture Program. “If Congress fails to act, an unregulated industry is likely to develop, and the environmental consequences could be severe. But with bold action, this committee can play a central role in crafting the legislative framework that will ensure strong protection of U.S. federal waters and an environmentally and economically responsible industry.”

“Congress has the rare opportunity, and responsibility, to construct an entirely new regulatory framework to effectively manage a nascent industry in U.S. waters,” said Michael Sutton, commissioner of the California Fish and Game Commission and VP of the Center for the Future of the Oceans.

“Based on the potential significant risks to the ocean and coastal environment from aquaculture operations, this framework must place a high priority on the protection of wild fish and ecosystems,” added Sutton. “It must include clear and comprehensive standards to guide industry development and adopt a precautionary and adaptive-management approach to scaling up aquaculture operations in U.S. waters.”

Also testifying at Wednesday’s hearing were Ken Hinman, president of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation; Mark Vinsel, executive director of United Fishermen of Alaska; Robert Alverson, executive director of the Fishing Vessel Owners Association; and Bill Cox, vice chairman of the South Carolina Seafood Alliance.

Last week, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council’s vote allowing open-ocean aquaculture in the Gulf went into effect. The federal regulatory framework is intended to provide context for a fishery management plan for fish farms in the Gulf.

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