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Recommendations for Responsible Growth of the US Marine Aquaculture Industry

November 2020

Claire Forgey-Jahn, Policy Analyst Intern



Photo: Working an Oyster Net (Bear Cove, Alaska), Issac Wedin, Wikimedia Commons

While aquaculture is a leading method of protein production in many countries, the US imports far more seafood than it produces- and around half of this is from aquaculture. There are pros and cons to expanding the aquaculture industry in the US. First of all, aquaculture would increase food security in the US and would provide for more local seafood options as well as reliable sources of food for our growing population. The introduction of land-based or offshore aquaculture facilities will bring job opportunities. Additionally, aquaculture can help alleviate pressure on wild fish populations that are being depleted. If performed properly, aquaculture can be an environmentally friendly way of farming protein. Compared to poultry or cattle farming, fish farming is a more resource-efficient way to produce protein since their food is more directly converted to body mass.


Conversely, if not regulated or monitored rigorously aquaculture can have significant environmental implications. One important consideration pertaining to offshore aquaculture is that the facility may obstruct migratory fish paths, putting a strain on wild fish populations. Many offshore aquaculture projects have also been known to affect water quality with excess food, waste, and antibiotics, as well as being hotspots for disease that can transfer to wild populations. Disease in fish farms can spread rapidly since they are held in such close captivity and occasionally they can spread to wild populations. Aquaculture facilities are also not generally sites the public is welcoming of since they can compromise the beauty of the coastline, while also interfering with existing fishing jobs.


One of the main points of concern within the growing US offshore aquaculture industry has to do with potential environmental impact due to poor monitoring implementation. One case that people often use as an example is the Catalina Sea Ranch catastrophe. Catalina Sea Ranch was the very first offshore aquaculture facility in US federal waters. In 2018, the company began experiencing maintenance problems that were noncompliant with the permit issued by the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). Underwater video monitoring revealed equipment in a state of disrepair, and lines that were not properly anchored to the seafloor. Poor infrastructure was a safety concern not only for wild marine animals, but also for Catalina Sea Ranch employees. USACE initiated enforcement measures and Catalina Sea Ranch was set to be back in compliance with the permit by the beginning of 2019. In the same year they faced litigation after the death of an employee, and there still was no proper infrastructure monitoring enforcement when a broken underwater line wrapped around the propeller of a fishing boat, causing it to capsize.


Since this incident the US government has not yet constructed a comprehensive offshore aquaculture monitoring plan, causing some to be wary of expanding the industry. Many constituents believe aquaculture expansion will be a threat to environmental conservation, especially while lacking a detailed monitoring plan. In 2015, an offshore aquaculture project known as Rose Canyon Fisheries, a joint project between Hubbs-Seaworld Research Institute and a private equity firm Cuna Del Mar, began the permitting process to operate off the coast of San Diego. Since they were ultimately pioneers of the industry, this was a slow and arduous process. Not only is the prospect of offshore aquaculture new to San Diego, but new to the US. In 2017, the project was shut down due to opposition from San Diego Coastkeeper, an environmental organization. They argued that the project would be under-regulated and that there was no clear federal regulatory framework to abide by. In 2020, Hubbs-Seaworld Research Institute started up a new project with Pacific6, called Pacific Ocean Aquafarms. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is the lead agency overseeing this project and will soon prepare an Environmental Impact Statement. San Diego Coastkeeper has been urging people to speak out against the project during the public comment period so that public input may be considered in the draft Environmental Impact Statement. San Diego Coastkeeper wants to ensure that all necessary regulations are in place before they begin operating.


Monitoring Recommendations for Offshore Aquaculture:


  • There should be regular and continual monitoring, reporting, and site inspection that the company submits to a federal or state agency for approval. Once in operation, an agency should administer regular environmental monitoring surveys in which the company must provide all environmental assessment results. If a survey provides unsatisfactory results, the operation must be issued with a warning and should draft a plan to resolve the issues by a specific date. If acceptable pollutant levels are still not met after this, it should be shut down.

  • To ensure compliance with water quality standards, the company should determine baseline measurements pertaining to water quality before operating and then regularly once operation begins. The company should provide an assessment of the site’s benthic, or ocean floor, conditions. They should also provide documentation of water temperature, dissolved oxygen, and salinity. They should first determine baseline measurements and regularly test levels to ensure stability. Another way to test water quality is by using a secchi disk to measure water turbidity. This will show how the amount of biomass and individual particle concentration changes over time.

  • To determine sediment quality, the oxygen level should be regularly monitored by way of redox potential analysis. This measurement should allude to any changes in the biological composition of the ocean sediment around the pens or cages.

  • Carbon and nitrogen ratios should be determined to assess the extent of organic enrichment caused by the facility. One way to measure this is through isotope analysis.

  • Underwater video monitoring is a relatively inexpensive way to monitor sediment quality surrounding the aquaculture facility, and works well in conjunction with redox potential analysis. This technique will allow the company to observe any changes in sediment appearance or color. Video monitoring specifically can regularly monitor effluent levels, from fish waste or feed, that are emitted from the site. Along with this, video monitoring can help ensure that the farm’s infrastructure is properly maintained and in alignment with permits issued by USACE- this should be regularly submitted for review.


Another regulatory barrier to safe and efficient expansion of the aquaculture industry is the permitting system companies must navigate through. Companies must apply for multiple permits through multiple different agencies, sometimes they even contradict each other. This is a taxing process for a startup and discourages development within the industry. Many states do not compile or share all necessary information on the legal requirements an applicant must meet, so it is up to the applicant to maneuver their way through the process.


Aquaculture is a very diverse industry and along with this are disparities in areas of opportunity within the industry, largely between restorative aquaculture and large-scale commercial aquaculture. It is difficult to become an authorized project either way- commercial aquaculture projects often face pushback from local fishermen or environmental conservation groups and restorative projects may have trouble garnering support and funding for their operation. Aquaculture is not only a way to produce protein for human consumption but can be a tool for species restoration and stock enhancement. Restorative aquaculture is a type of aquaculture that directly benefits ocean vitality. This can be achieved through stock enhancement of threatened marine animals, or by use of seaweed or shellfish which can remove nitrogen and phosphorus from waterways thereby negating eutrophication impact.


One example of restorative aquaculture is Queen Conch Labs run by Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. The Queen Conch species has been declining from overfishing and habitat change throughout the Caribbean, and Queen Conch Labs has been working to repopulate the species using egg farms, hatcheries, nurseries, and ranches. Once the conch reach maturity they are placed back into the wild. Even with restorative aquaculture it is important to monitor the surrounding environment. To ensure that there are no environmental ramifications, many restorative aquaculture projects use an ecosystem approach to running their farms as opposed to the more commercial method of accepting certain levels of pollution to run a profitable farm. An ecosystem approach means that the farm restricts itself to a size that is found to have no impact on the environment around it.


Permitting Process Recommendation:

  • There should be an individual involved with NOAA or another leading federal agency that guides the applicant through the permitting process. This would help simplify and expedite the process for the company, while clarifying all requirements for development.

  • This individual should regularly consult with each state and federal agency issuing permits for the specific project, and should relay all important information to the applicant.


Restorative Aquaculture Recommendation:

  • There should be more support and funding for restorative aquaculture projects in the US. This could be instigated by the National Sea Grant College Program, a partnership between NOAA and 34 university programs in each coastal and great-lakes state and territory. It could work to expand this specific sector of aquaculture by setting aside a certain amount of federal funding for restorative aquaculture projects.