Aquaculture is a hot industry right now both in the eyes of investors looking for the next great growth opportunity and environmentalists that want to reign in the industry’s expansion. Commercial operations has been hopeful about some of President Trump’s moves to ease regulations, particularly for offshore fish farming, but that optimism is fading as the industry worries regulations could again be tightened under a Democratic White House.
Aquaculture, or the cultivation of fish and aquatic plants for food, is a $1.5 billion industry in the U.S. that includes both freshwater and marine, aka saltwater operations. Consumer demand for farmed fish as well as marine vegetables such as kelp is expected to rise by +62% over the next decade. With 10 billion people expected to inhabit the planet by 2050, and demand for animal protein expected to increase by +52%, some believe fish farming and other forms of aquaculture is a sustainable solution for meeting that demand.
Fish and other aquaculture operations in the U.S. can be found both inland and near-shore off U.S. coastlines. US crawfish and catfish farming account for 86% of all of the freshwater aquaculture production in the United States, and 74% of all aquaculture production – marine and freshwater combined – in America. Since the early 2000s, U.S. land-based production has been struggling to compete with overseas production, particularly catfish farmers. Land-based salmon farming has promised to be the “next big thing” but the industry is struggling to meet those expectations.
Expansion of near-shore farms continuously runs up against environmental and other concerns, as well. Pollution is a major worry. A proposed Nordic Aquafarms project in Belfast, Main, for instance, would raise more than 72 million pounds of salmon annually on its 56-acre campus. Utilizing around 5,200 gallons of both saltwater and freshwater, the facility would discharge more than 7 million gallons of filtered wastewater into the Belfast Bay each day. It’s that discharge that concerns other stakeholders, such as commercial fishermen who worry the discharge will harm the fish, shellfish, and bivalve (clams, oysters) populations in the Bay. It’s also a concern to other food aquaculture producers, such as organic kelp farmers, who worry the discharge could jeopardize their certifications.
The Trump administration has worked toward helping the U.S. aquaculture industry expand. In May, the President signed an executive order that mandates the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, a division of the Department of Commerce, identify two locations in U.S. waters to begin trying offshore aquaculture. Federally controlled waters, which span from 3 miles to 200 miles off U.S. coastlines, have so far been off-limits. And it so happens that there is a huge amount of controversy surrounding offshore fish farms.
One of the worries is over fish escaping and wreaking havoc on the environment, which is an issue for environmentalists when it comes to all aquaculture done in U.S. waterways. The thinking is that non-native fish could disrupt ecosystems. According to a 2017 report by The Guardian, as many as 250,000 salmon were released when a cage came apart near British Columbia. Another report claimed 2 million salmon have escaped from a Norwegian farm over 10 years. Fish waste is an even bigger point of contention. Obviously, fish waste is a naturally occurring thing in the ocean but opponents are concerned with the concentrations of waste created by tightly caged fish that may carry added nutrients, antibiotics, and medications. Some point to leftover fish feed as well as diseases and parasites that are prevalent among farm fish as also adding to environmental hazards.
Not all environmental groups are opposed to expanding aquaculture in the U.S. The Nature Conservancy calls the practice a “compelling investment opportunity with meaningful impact.” Conservation International and the Environmental Defense Fund are strategic partners in a fund that is invested in Ocean Era, formerly Kampachi Farms, which operates fish farms in Hawaii. The company is currently working to open the first deep-ocean farms in federal waters.
President Trump’s executive order actually would facilitate Ocean Era’s precedent-setting plan to develop its project in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida where it will raise 20,000 Almaco jackfish in a net pen in the ocean 45 miles southwest of Sarasota. Kampachi Farms previously established aquaculture pens in state-controlled waters off the coast of Hawaii and in Mexico’s Gulf of California. Ocean Era and other proponents say the waste concentrations will be solved by the open waters themselves, as well as the ability to give fish more room. EPA’s own assessment of the proposed Ocean Era pilot project found that it wouldn’t create significant waste problems in the surrounding waters. Whether the executive order will stand under the next administration is completely up in the air. (Sources: Civil Eats, NOAA, NPR, Aquaculture Alliance)