Sustainable Ocean Summit: US must work harder to advance sustainable aquaculture

Published on
December 6, 2017

Jerry Schubel, president and CEO of the Aquarium of the Pacific, has some big ideas on how the United States can advance sustainable aquaculture.

Speaking at the World Ocean Council’s Sustainable Oceans Summit in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, Schubel said the U.S. “can and must have a growing future if we are going to feed 2.5 billion more people by this century’s end.”

The United Nations has said the one country with the greatest potential to make a significant contribution to aquaculture is the United States. Just one-tenth of one percent of U.S. managed waters could produce an amount of seafood equal to the world total wild catch, he said.

But, according to Schubel, “The U.S. aquaculture industry is stuck. The science and technology have evolved; the industry has not.”

“We have new tools for placing farms in appropriate places, seeing they are not over-stocked, reducing escape and to minimize the waste of food,” he said, mentioning spatial planning as an example. “Spatial planning is a powerful tool for identifying areas that are of particular biological importance and should be set aside as a protected area, but spatial planning will also identify others area for other uses by society that will benefit the economy without adversely impacting the ecosystem.”

Schubel criticized the fact that the United States doesn’t have a single finfish farm in federal waters, and has just one shellfish farm. Two additional finfish farms have applied for permits, but their permits have not been acted on, he said.

“Why is that? Do we have higher environmental standards in the U.S. than the rest of the world? Is it a lack of knowledge and technology? Is there no interest among aquaculture entrepreneurs? Is there a lack of suitable ocean conditions? The answer is none of them,” Schubel said. “A major answer is we don’t have one federal agency with lead responsibility for aquaculture in the United States. You have to go through agency after agency in order to get a permit. Our permitting process is like the definition given to a committee years ago: a committee is a dark alley down which good ideas are taken and strangled to death.”

Schubel’s solution is for the U.S. to embrace “comprehensive spatial planning, using the best science to detect and identify areas for legitimate aquaculture use.” This is something the European Union has done with success, he said. While some of this has been done in deep water in the Mid-Atlantic and along the California coast, Schubel said, “The U.S. record is spotty.”

Among impediments to the development of U.S. aquaculture industry are negative public perception and understanding, which puts pressure on policymakers, since a small group of opponents attend hearings and meetings and are heard, Schubel said.

“In the U.S. not much is known about aquaculture and what is known is out of date, incorrect and often wrong,” he said. “Dated messages have lifespan. A recent study found that perceived environmental concern was a primary diver for negative comments to the regulatory process for farms in U.S. A relatively small number of people comment on these applications. They go to public hearings and they’re very vocal in their opposition.”

In response, Schubel believes there should be a public education effort launched centered on the importance of aquaculture. 

“We need to coordinate our messages. They need to be repeated, be consistent and need to come from trusted sources. I come from an aquarium which is a trusted source by the public, but unfortunately not many aquariums have been advocates for aquaculture, although that appears to be changing over the last couple of years,” he said. “We need to promote the scientific and technological advances in the last couple of years and the social and economic advantages of marine aquaculture.” 

As part of the legitimacy test, Schubel believes the industry needs to be upfront about the mistakes that were made “and acknowledge the potential risk. There are risks associated with any mode of food production. The single human activity that has had the greater impact on the earth and ocean is agriculture as presently practiced.” Schubel said he believes aquaculture can stand the comparison.

In his presentation, Neil Sims, co-CEO of Kampachi Farms, agreed with Schubel that the science of modern fish-farming is compelling and should silence or mute opponents.

“The basic need of aquaculture is science and good science should give us the social license to move offshore,” he said. “Yes, there will be stumbles, but there will be success and with success we should be able to achieve the scaling that we need to be able to feed nine billion people.”

Kampachi has openly shared information about his own company’s efforts to increase its production efficiency to help change the mindset of those who were opposed or uneasy about ocean aquaculture, Sims said.

“The science is very compelling. The offshore aquaculture trials that we have done in Velella and Panama has shown improved fish performance and no environmental impact,” he said. “Improved fish performance means 13 percent improvement in feed conversation, a 98 percent survival rate versus 70 to 75 percent in net pens, with evidence of less stress in fish because of less thrashing against netting” and a 20 percent reduction in management cost, he said.

Echoing Schubel, Sims says the sector’s “main impairment is regulatory constraints and lack of vision from the federal government.” The NOAA Aquaculture “rule” that restricts permits to 10 years, imposes a production cap and prioritizes oil and ga sites to the detriment of aquaculture are unhelpful. 

The 10-year duration wasn’t attractive for investors because “We need three to four years for stocking, then five to six years to be profitable. And giving the oil and gas industry a “complete veto over any aquaculture sites” was not fair, he said.

Mike Meeker, who is both CEO of StormSafe Submersibles and a 35-year fish farmer in Ontario, said more comparisons need to be made between aquaculture and agriculture. The head-to-head comparison always comes out in seafood’s favor, he said.

“I can grow a million pounds of rainbow trout in three to four meters of water in Lake Huron with no environmental impact. It takes a land farmer hundreds of thousands acres to grow the same amount of beef. So compare the impact,” Meeker said. 

Meeker said the top problem facing aquaculture was its regulators.

“I’ve met some of the nicest, smartest people who work at [Canada’s] Ministry of the Environment, and Department of Fisheries and Oceans,” he said. “They’re smart people, but when they become an agency they become stupid.”

Reporting from Eastern Canada

Want seafood news sent to your inbox?