Environmental Safeguards for Open-Ocean Aquaculture: Expanding Aquaculture into Federal Waters Should Not Be Promoted without Enforceable National Guidelines for the Protection of Marine Ecosystems and Fisheries

By Naylor, Rosamond L. | Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Environmental Safeguards for Open-Ocean Aquaculture: Expanding Aquaculture into Federal Waters Should Not Be Promoted without Enforceable National Guidelines for the Protection of Marine Ecosystems and Fisheries


Naylor, Rosamond L., Issues in Science and Technology


Because of continued human pressure on ocean fisheries and ecosystems, aquaculture has become one of the most promising avenues for increasing marine fish production. During the past decade, worldwide aquaculture production of salmon, shrimp, tuna, cod, and other marine species has grown by 10% annually; its value, by 7% annually. These rates will likely persist and even rise in the coming decades because of advances in aquaculture technology and an increasing demand for fish and shellfish. Although aquaculture has the potential to relieve pressure on ocean fisheries, it can also threaten marine ecosystems and wild fish populations through the introduction of exotic species and pathogens, effluent discharge, the use of wild fish to feed farmed fish, and habitat destruction. If the aquaculture industry does not shift to a sustainable path soon, the environmental damage produced by intensive crop and livestock production on land could be repeated in fish farming at sea.

In the United States, aquaculture growth for marine fish and shellfish has been below the world average, rising annually by 4% in volume and 1% in value. The main species farmed in the marine environment are Atlantic salmon, shrimp, oysters, and hard clams; together they account for about one-quarter of total U.S. aquaculture production. Freshwater species, such as catfish, account for the majority of U.S. aquaculture output.

The technology is in place for marine aquaculture development in the United States, but growth remains curtailed by the lack of unpolluted sites for shellfish production, competing uses of coastal waters, environmental concerns, and low market prices for some major commodities such as Atlantic salmon. Meanwhile, the demand for marine fish and shellfish continues to rise more rapidly than domestic production, adding to an increasing U.S. seafood deficit (now about $8 billion annually).

The U.S. Department of Commerce has articulated the need to reverse the seafood deficit, and under the leadership of its subagency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has a stated goal of increasing the value of the U.S. aquaculture industry from about $1 billion per year currently to $5 billion by 2025. In order to achieve this goal, the Department of Commerce has set its sights on the federal waters of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), located between the 3-mile state zone and 200 miles offshore, where the potential for aquaculture development appears almost limitless. The United States has the largest EEZ in the world, amounting to 4.5 million square miles, or roughly 1.5 times the landmass of the lower 48 states. Opening federal waters to aquaculture development could result in substantial commercial benefits, but it also poses significant ecological risks to the ocean--a place many U.S. citizens consider to be the nation's last frontier.

On June 8, 2005, Commerce Committee Co-Chairmen Sens. Ted Stevens (R-AK) and Daniel Inouye (D-HI) introduced the National Offshore Aquaculture Act of 2005 (S. 1195). The bill, crafted by NOAA, seeks to support offshore aquaculture development within the federal waters of the EEZ; to establish a permitting process that encourages private investment in aquaculture operations, demonstrations, and research; and to promote R & D in marine aquaculture science and technology and related social, economic, legal, and environmental management disciplines. It provides the secretary of Commerce with the authority and broad discretion to open federal waters to aquaculture development, in consultation with other relevant federal agencies but without firm environmental mandates apart from existing laws. The bill's proponents argue that fish farming in the open ocean will relieve environmental stress near shore and protect wild fisheries by offering an alternative means of meeting the rising demand for seafood. However, because it lacks a clear legal standard for environmental and resource protection, the bill's enactment would likely lead to a further decline in marine fisheries and ecosystems. …

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