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Aquaculture Gains Sustainability Cred

By Leon Kaye

The discussion over the opening of federally-owned public lands to more commercial purposes, or even selling some of them off entirely, is a hot topic this year. But what about areas of the oceans and seas that are also managed by the U.S. government? Recent federal agency decisions on future ocean development oceans could help boost food security here in U.S. – or they could reignite the heated farmed-versus-wild seafood debate.

Aquaculture, was once seen as an environmental disaster. Many environmentalists still perceive it that way. But the practice continues to make gains across the world, with the U.S. being a notable exception. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), over 90 percent of the shrimp, salmon, tilapia and other seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported. As a result, the American seafood deficit surged to over $11 billion annually.

We may be averse to having aquaculture along our shores, but instead it is outsourced abroad. And NOAA and some seafood trade organizations argue that aquaculture is increasingly becoming safer, and can make way for habitat restoration, sustainable economic development and stronger fisheries.

For the most part, however, aquaculture projects have been one-off ventures such as mollusk and seaweed farms off the coasts of places like New England and Long Island. And to date, there are no commercial fish farming operations in any federal waters.

Those numbers led NOAA to approve aquaculture for the first time in federally-managed waters in the Gulf of Mexico last year. Some local fishing companies were quick the welcome the news. But many environmental groups argued that the practice is still not ecologically sound.

And considering the cost of investing in deep-water fish farming, businesses aren't pounding on NOAA’s doors in order to secure aquaculture permits. The result, Deena Shanker of Bloomberg reported last year, was a “$100 million mistake,” as the funds NOAA poured into this idea have not yet panned out. Discussions about establishing fish farms in Hawaii’s waters have been just that, talk. NOAA appears spooked by the backlash and lawsuits by organizations such as the nonprofit Center for Food Safety.

But the reality is that aquaculture is not going away. In fact, it will continue to surge, as it is a cost-effective way to supply protein to an increasingly growing – and hungry – world. The World Bank, for example, estimated that two-thirds of all seafood consumed globally will be provided by aquaculture. As the argument goes, instead of importing that fish from abroad, expand fish farming here in the U.S. – where regulations are far stricter than they are in global aquaculture leaders such as Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

And aquaculture is generally becoming safer, science journalist Virginia Gewin of the Food and Environment Reporting Network outlined last month. The overuse of antibiotics in the industry, which was once the foundation of the health argument against the expansion of aquaculture, has largely declined – vaccines are now the norm across the industry. Fish excrement, another challenge that bedeviled the industry, can be a relatively small problem compared to the nitrates washing into seas such as the Gulf of Mexico – where oil spills are a far more ominous environmental threat. Compared to livestock operations for pork and cattle, Gewin argued, fish farming is relatively benign – if done correctly.

Meanwhile, NOAA is still pursuing aquaculture research. The agency is focused on the commercial farming of several species of fish, including sablefish, otherwise known as black cod or butterfish. This fish coveted by chefs for its versatility and texture, but its stocks have declined rapidly in recent years.

Overall, however, aquaculture still has a long road to acceptance. And its future is not helped by the fact that the current presidential administration, which has had NOAA in its crosshairs due to its climate research, suggested a 17 percent cut to its budget before the temporary spending agreement reached with Congress a few weeks ago. If the president eventually succeeds in gutting NOAA’s budget, he would hurt both local fisherman and entrepreneurs while allowing more fish from dubious sources to be imported into the U.S.

Shrimp from the Sahara, anyone? That could become the future of seafood consumption in the U.S. if we do not find a way to grow it sustainably off our shores.

Image credit: NOAA/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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