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The January 2016 Gulf Aquaculture Plan: A Contested Impact

Thursday, August 11, 2016
Hannah Hauptman

Hannah Hauptman

Research and Publications Intern, Summer 2016

This past January, NOAA released a landmark final rule (referred to here as the Gulf Plan) establishing a permitting and regulatory framework for offshore aquaculture—fish farming—in federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico. Since the Gulf Plan is the first rule to enable aquaculture in federal waters (3-200 miles offshore), the environmental and economic outcomes are uncertain. This ruling—the product of over a decade of research and revision—has become the subject of intense criticism from both environmental organizations and proponents of offshore aquaculture. NOAA lauds the ruling as a long-overdue policy to create economic growth and meet demands for sustainable seafood. At the same time, some environmentalists predict increased pollution and fish disease, fishermen fear price drops, and potential investors think the regulation is overly complex.

Approximately 85% of the world’s fisheries are exploited at levels equaling or surpassing their maximum sustainable yield. Concurrently, the global demand for seafood continues to rise, and aquaculture has become a crucial part of meeting this demand. Over 50% of seafood worldwide now comes from fish farms, a percentage that is expected to increase steadily over the next several decades. But this production is not evenly distributed across the world’s waters—89% of aquaculture production occurs in Asia, while the Americas account for only 5% of global output. Though the United States is one of the world’s largest seafood consumers, 91% of the country’s enormous domestic demand is met through imports. According to NMFS, domestic aquaculture supplies only five to seven percent of U.S. demand, and the vast majority of this comes from freshwater species and marine shellfish.

The largest impediment to the development of a robust marine finfish industry thus far has been a lack of federal legislation permitting and regulating aquaculture in federal waters. With the Gulf Plan, NOAA has decided to regulate rather than wait for long-stagnant legislative proposals in order to hasten pilot investments in offshore aquaculture. Defenders of the Gulf Plan, including NOAA, argue that bringing offshore aquaculture into the relatively robust framework of U.S. fisheries management will help limit the detrimental environmental effects of open-water aquaculture, increase traceability, decrease U.S. reliance on foreign imports, and spur regional economic growth. Offshore aquaculture enthusiasts argue that, in comparison with coastal aquaculture, offshore production reduces risks to sensitive coastlines and causes fewer marine-use disputes, while stronger offshore currents facilitate waste dispersal.

NOAA is confident that the Gulf Plan takes adequate steps to protect the Gulf’s economy and environment. Admitting that “it is conceivable that some level of aquaculture in the Gulf could result in adverse impacts to wild stocks,” the Gulf Plan sets an annual catch limit of 64 million pounds, a limit derived from the average Gulf catch from 2000 to 2006. The Plan bans “genetically engineered or transgenic” species from use in Gulf aquaculture, as well as any non-native species. Every permit applicant must conduct a baseline environmental survey of the proposed site, and NMFS reserves the right to determine permissible sites on a case-by-case basis. The Plan also requires extensive testing of stock for the presence of diseases and parasites and has strict monitoring and reporting requirements, though it does not establish financial penalties for failing to meet standards. Aquaculture operations that are large enough to qualify as Concentrated Aquatic Animal Production facilities are treated as a point source and must obtain an NPDES permit under the CWA.

Many environmental organizations disagree with NOAA’s assessment, arguing that these safeguards are not sufficient to protect the Gulf from the uncertainties of large-scale aquaculture. Open-water net-pen aquaculture, the most controversial and potentially most valuable form of fish-farming allowed under the Plan, has significant environmental drawbacks. ELI’s Ocean Program produced a report in 2015 that detailed several environmental and cultural risks of net-pens, from marine mammal entanglement to marine-use conflicts. Food & Water Watch explains how escaped farmed species (even those without genetic modifications) can interbreed and compete with wild species, affecting ecosystem balance and species composition. Due to the high-density production required to make net-pen aquaculture profitable, farmed fish are more susceptible to outbreaks of disease and pests, which can then spread to nearby populations. The byproducts of finfish aquaculture—waste, antibiotics, pesticides, excess feed—flow out of the pens and into the open ocean, affecting nearby species across trophic levels. Seafood Watch also warns of the destabilizing effects of ranching, wherein fish farmers catch wild juveniles and fatten them for sale or for feeding to larger pelagic species.

Though these organizations recognize the need to increase seafood production, many question NOAA’s decision to permit full-scale finfish aquaculture without first testing a federal regulatory scheme for offshore shellfish, a more environmentally responsible protein source. Those who believe that the Plan will further endanger the already-stressed Gulf ecosystem claim that NOAA is overstepping its regulatory authority by allowing private investors to exploit a resource perceived to be held in the public trust. The Center for Food Safety (CFS) filed a lawsuit against NOAA and NMFS, claiming that “NOAA exceeded its authority to regulate fishing under the Magnuson-Stevens Act” and that the “finalized Aquaculture FMP lacks a legitimate conservation purpose.” CFS takes the absence of federal legislation governing offshore aquaculture production to be a sign of proper caution and sees NOAA’s rulemaking as a misguided and illegal subversion of Congress’ legislative authority.

On the economic side, the Gulf Plan’s catch limits constitute another point of contention. Gulf fishermen argue that the 64 million pound limit, with its potential to double production, undercuts a fishing industry already stressed by lasting ramifications of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and a growing ecological dead-zone created by agricultural runoff. Conversely, major aquaculture interests say the 64 million pound cutoff, combined with a 20% market-share limit per company stifles investment. Additionally, aquaculture entrepreneurs like Neil Sims see NMFS’ retention of case-by-case authority as capricious and potentially disastrous. Investors would have to work closely with multiple permitting agencies and regulatory bodies, providing a bureaucratic barrier to entry into the nascent industry. Aquaculture consultants see the relatively short 10-year permits and the unclear requirements for renewal as uncertainties that will deter millions of dollars in startup capital needed for large-scale fish farms.

The Gulf Plan’s skeptics believe the rule will enable big producers (and polluters) to profit off of a public resource—the open ocean—while flooding the market and pricing out wild-capture fishermen. Meanwhile, the aspects of the Gulf Plan that environmental advocates praise as necessary backstop protections are denounced as impediments to investment by aquaculture business interests. So far, the opinions of “Big Aq” seem to be prescient, and the concerns of environmentalists remain untested; as of July 2016, no aquaculture investors have put forth an application for a Gulf Aquaculture Permit. While the debate over the long-term ramifications of large-scale aquaculture in federal waters remains theoretical for now, it will undoubtedly become more pressing in the coming years as actual production tests NOAA’s predictions. It’s a developing narrative that we at ELI will certainly be following closely, as rules like the Gulf Plan will define where our (sea)food will come from in the next generation.

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