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Critics of NOAA’s aquaculture policy say, ‘Show me the standards’

By James Wright
September 01, 2011

The joke goes like this: What’s it take to make a small fortune in aquaculture? A large fortune.

For anyone considering operating or investing in aquaculture in U.S. waters, it’s funny and also not so funny, because it’s true. It’s not that you can’t be successful farming marine fish species in the United States, where the federal government badly wants to expand aquaculture. While deep pockets and stout entrepreneurialism are prerequisites, the problem is and has always been the dearth of explicit rules to govern industry growth and steward the precious coastal and offshore ecosystems that may one day become an aquatic heartland. An economically advantageous regulatory framework for fish farming that eliminates uncertainty and also pleases environmental groups? That could take years to push through Congress — bet you’ve heard that one before.  

So on June 9, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its long-awaited Marine Aquaculture Policy, shoulders shrugged from Downeast Maine to the Hawaiian Islands. “Aquaculture is a critical component to meeting increasing global demand for seafood,” said NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco the day after the agency hosted an industry forum in Washington, D.C., titled “Demystifying Seafood.

It’s not that Lubchenco wasn’t making perfect sense — domestic marine aquaculture could, if done properly, create thousands of jobs, narrow the gap between source and store and allow for more stringent food-safety inspections; whether it could dent the nation’s annual $9 billion seafood trade deficit is up for debate. 

Marine-based producers of farmed finfish in the United States, all of which can be described as small-scale and fending for themselves, simply don’t see a clearer path to growth or stability, policy or no policy.

George Nardi, co-founder and chief technical officer of Great Bay Aquaculture in Portsmouth, N.H., believes it’s a “positive thing” that NOAA is officially supporting aquaculture after years of looking the other way. Great Bay raises cod (and other species like halibut, sea bass and flounder) from eggs to fingerlings in a New Hampshire hatchery and operates a grow-out facility a mile off the shore of Sorrento, Maine. In Frenchman Bay, within eyesight of Acadia National Park, sit 10 circular net pens that can hold approximately 40,000 cod each. All of the 2-pound cod Great Bay produces are sold to the live market in major East Coast cities. 

Nardi, who was a guest speaker at the “Demystifying” event on World Oceans Day in June, has tried to develop aquaculture sites in lots of places, including nearby Canada. He has found Maine to be the most welcoming; despite its rigorous standards, the state has a clear process for site permitting. But infrastructural issues — for instance, the dock he uses in Sorrento is removed for the winter, while the farm keeps running — need to be addressed for more companies to take on the risks of farming fish. Research funding for selective breeding, a process that has shaped nearly every food product that Americans eat, is also essential but it remains a stumbling block due to the concerns of environmentalists, who Nardi says have the ear of Lubchenco and other government officials. Fish farmers like him simply need more federal support to advance.

“It’s easy to say things,” says Nardi. “Now there have to be some actions. [The government] says they’ll do something. But this will go nowhere unless there’s the political will to put some resources behind it. They have to plan for it and plan significantly if they want to be competitive and produce food here, in the United States, as opposed to importing more than 85 percent of the seafood we eat. They have to collaborate with industry and academia and all work together and build something up to where the industry can stand on its own two feet. Right now it can’t.” 

NOAA’s 12-page Marine Aquaculture Policy sets goals and actions for the development of aquaculture in federal waters (3 to 200 miles offshore) and prioritizes inter-agency cooperation and science-based management. If anything, it’s a best-practices promissory note that doesn’t get bogged down in details. Most importantly for the government, says Michael Rubino, NOAA Fisheries’ director of aquaculture, the policy provides regulatory agencies guidance on industry oversight in the short term.

“From the point of view of jobs and economic opportunity, the place we can expand right now is on the shellfish side,” he says. Shellfish farming has far less-intensive impacts on ecosystems in comparison to finfish, especially the controversial, carnivorous species like salmon that require significant wild fish resources for their feed (see Going Green this issue). Filter-feeding bivalve shellfish like mussels, clams and oysters need no feed and typically have net ecological benefits in terms of improving water quality.

“Shellfish aquaculture is less controversial, it’s [politically] safer,” says Nardi, adding that NOAA wants to start off with something it can be successful with. “Why cause a lot of heartburn right off the bat?

The feds haven’t forsaken finfish farming, but the heightened emotional responses it tends to stir up necessitate a gradual approach. Also on Rubino’s to-do list is implementing the fishery management plan (FMP) for aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico; the regional fishery management council in the Gulf is the first to have completed FMPs for farmed species.

Gulf waters are suitable for raising redfish, grouper and snapper and despite stern opposition from some groups concerned about fish escapes, pollution and other issues, the Gulf provides promising siting opportunities for offshore net pens; unused oil platforms could serve as storage and staff quarters. Rubino envisions the Gulf as a template for other regions, and hopes an official permitting process will be in place in a year or so. 

“There is a new willingness to work on this, which is quite exciting for those of us who have been sloshing through this for 20 years,” says Rubino. 

There are some leading environmental groups that want aquaculture to succeed, but they don’t necessarily share the government’s rosy outlook. Critics of the federal policy say the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), which has governed all domestic fisheries since 1976, was never intended to regulate fish farming, only the capture of wild animals; and the overarching goal of creating jobs and reducing dependence on seafood imports, while laudable, should not be the carrot. 

“I’m interested in how we can produce our own seafood and do it in ways that protect ecosystems,” says George Leonard, director of the aquaculture program at Ocean Conservancy in Santa Cruz, Calif. “But using a national policy to plow ahead doesn’t seem like a thoughtful way to do it.”

Leonard and Michael Sutton, VP of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the director of its Center for the Future of the Oceans, are both fervent environmentalists and critics of industrial-scale aquaculture, particularly for carnivorous finfish species. Aquaculture only succeeds, they argue, without negative impacts to ocean health. And they both say that legislation is the only way to drive responsible aquaculture toward that goal. A bill originally introduced by Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) in 2009 and resubmitted this summer (HR 2373) is a much more comprehensive starting point than the NOAA policy, says Leonard. 

“The development of aquaculture is too important to leave to the regional fishery management councils. We need an aquaculture bill, and the [Capps] bill does what the NOAA policy doesn’t, which is set specific standards,” agrees Sutton. “What I’ve told Congress is, ‘Look at 30 years of the MSA — we haven’t done a great job with specific standards and we won’t do a good job without them.’ We can’t afford to let the blue revolution have the same effect on the oceans that the green revolution had on land.” 

Burning questions for the future of aquaculture include not just where, but how big? Leonard cautions that a goal of competing on a global playing field could create a “race to the bottom.” Producing low-cost alternatives like Vietnamese pangasius, for instance, would be a “losing battle,” he says. 

“We need to create demand for high-quality items with higher price points,” he adds. “With the growing sustainability movement, we can match that to high-quality U.S. products.” 

With about half of the global seafood supply originating from aquaculture, Sutton says the “blue revolution” is well under way. But without binding production standards that the environmental community has called for, “any policy is going to fall short. And partisan gridlock in Washington means legislation is not moving, no matter how good it is.”
And the government’s economic goals for aquaculture? Nonsense, he says.
“There’s no way to reverse the seafood deficit on the back of U.S. aquaculture,” Sutton says, adding that any expansion of aquaculture will create jobs. “Let’s create jobs in an industry that doesn’t poison the environment. But that’s not the central challenge. We have the ability to show the world how to do aquaculture right. And that’s with barramundi, tilapia … predators like salmon? It’s the equivalent of farming grizzly bears and mountain lions on land. I see people eating a lot more herbivores. That’s the only way to increase the seafood supply in a sustainable manner.” 

“In our back-of-the-envelope calculations, fish farms would have to be on the size of Hubbs SeaWorld [Research Institute] in California, and you’d need 10,000 fish farms of that size to close that hole,” adds Leonard, referring to the seafood trade deficit. “That’s a number nobody wants to see on our oceans or is environmentally sustainable.”

Ultimately, NOAA’s National Marine Aquaculture Policy has fallen short of environmentalists’ and the industry’s fullest hopes. Its failure to address finfish farming regulations or set firm timetables or milestones for growth leaves growers of marine finfish species still waiting to be waved in to home plate, even though those species comprise the top-tier in terms of consumer demand. 

Neil Sims, president of the Ocean Stewards Institute, which represents a number of marine fish farmers, is pleased that NOAA wants to advance aquaculture, but he’s disappointed that the policy did not include specific production goals. Sims, co-founder of Kona Blue Water Farms in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, says NOAA needs to provide assurances to the public that “growth in offshore aquaculture is measured and rational.” 

But Sims and his colleagues aren’t necessarily fighting fire with fire. Expansion of finfish aquaculture has been met with fevered criticism, despite the industry’s advancements in recent years and its commitments to sustainable practices. In early August, Washington, D.C.-based group Food & Water Watch sued federal agencies that in July “arbitrarily and capriciously” granted Kona Blue the first commercial permit to grow its yellowtail species, kampachi (Seriola rivoliana), in federal waters off the west coast of Hawaii’s Big Island. The group alleges that the federal government has no authority to grant such a permit and failed to address environmental impacts of the facilities. 

“The aquaculture industry, the state and now the federal government are determined to bring industrial-scale ocean factory farming to Hawaii, environmental risks be damned!” said Wenonah Hauter, the group’s executive director, in a written statement.

With such heated rhetoric from opponents, it’s a wonder that marine fish farming has gotten as far as it has. Amid so much controversy, Rubino contends that NOAA Fisheries is firming its commitment to aquaculture as an economic driver and a “complement” to its quest to end overfishing. 

“On paper, it’s been a priority,” he says. “In terms of action, less so, but we are building momentum.”


Email Associate Editor James Wright at jwright@divcom.com

 September 2011 - SeaFood Business 

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