Aquaculture is government's solution to overfishing and feeding the planet
HONOLULU, Hawaii — Traditional commercial fishing is threatening fish populations worldwide. As a result, U.S. officials are working on a plan to expand fish farming into federal waters around the Pacific Ocean.
The government sees the move toward fish farms, known as aquaculture, as a promising solution to overfishing and feeding a hungry planet. But some environmentalists say the industrial-scale farms could do more harm than good to overall ocean health.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is creating a plan to manage commercial fish farms in the federal waters located 3 to 200 miles offshore around Hawaii and other Pacific islands.
Similar Program Already Implemented In Gulf Of Mexico
The program is similar to one recently implemented by NOAA in the Gulf of Mexico. The farms in the Gulf and the Pacific would be the only aquaculture operations in U.S. federal waters. There are smaller operations in waters closer to shore. Those programs are run by states, not the federal government.
Fish farming has been practiced for centuries in Hawaii and around the world. But some environmentalists say modern aquaculture carries pollution risks. There is also the potential for non-native farmed fish to escape and enter the natural ecosystem.
Most shellfish consumed in America comes from farms that have methods considered to be sustainable. However, farms growing fish that eat other animals, such as salmon, have raised concerns about sustainability. Many of these farms use wild-caught fish to feed the farm fish species.
There are three ways to farm fish: fully contained land-based systems that pump water in and out with little, if any, environmental impact; near-shore operations incorporating natural and man-made elements; and off-shore farms.
Is Open-Ocean Aquaculture Environmentally Sustainable?
Sylvia Earle is a former NOAA chief scientist and founder of the ocean advocacy group Mission Blue. Earle said there are more environmentally sustainable and economically viable options than open-ocean aquaculture. This uses huge floating net-pens or submerged cages. "We have to make a choice with aquaculture," she said. "Is our goal to feed a large number of people? Or is our goal to create or to serve a luxury market?"
Last year, NOAA and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography put a dollar value of $17 billion a year on the ocean off the west coasts of North and South America. That includes $4.3 billion from commercial and sport fishing and $12.9 billion for the capture of carbon. Carbon capture is the process of capturing waste carbon dioxide and placing it somewhere that it will not enter the atmosphere.
Earle said the ocean is worth more and that no dollar figure can be attached to keeping the ocean, and in turn humans, healthy. "We now have recognition of other values of the ocean beyond what we can extract either for food or for products," she said.
U.S. Crews Are Sent Overseas To Farm
New technologies are being developed for open-ocean aquaculture, and many U.S. companies are sending their crews overseas to farm, according to NOAA officials.
"The U.S.'s view is we'd rather have these U.S. companies pursuing these opportunities in a sustainable, environmentally sound way in the U.S.," said Michael Tosatto. He is NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service regional administrator.
The NOAA plan would create a regulatory and permitting scheme for the industry. "It's reasonably common knowledge that the environmental laws are less where aquaculture occurs the most, (that) being China and other Southeast Asia countries," Tosatto said.
Many foreign operations have U.S. companies supplying the initial fish stock, then the fish are grown and sold back to the U.S. as imported seafood. U.S.-farmed fish in 2014 was valued at $1.3 billion, Tosatto said. This constitutes 19 percent of the nation's seafood production. But, that amounts to only 1 percent of the global farmed product.
NOAA Attempts To Move Forward
NOAA has been trying to establish an aquaculture industry in federal waters for many years, but attempts to get legislation to implement open-sea aquaculture have failed.
"And so (NOAA) moved into the fishery management process ... as a means to move forward with ocean aquaculture under the radar of the public," said Marianne Cufone, executive director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition. NOAA received input from thousands of people during a public comment period last year on its plans.
Cufone's New Orleans-based organization has been developing land-based aquaculture systems that are fully contained. Cufone says these types of farms are more sustainable than ocean aquaculture, and Earle agrees.
"Controlled systems are the most promising," Earle said. "I personally am wary of the open-ocean approach to aquaculture."
Native Hawaiians Practice Sustainable Aquaculture
Meanwhile, NOAA says researchers off Hawaii's Big Island are studying ways to make open-ocean farming safe and efficient. They are studying different methods and fish species to better understand problems the industry could face.
Native Hawaiians have long practiced sustainable aquaculture. They build walls around shoreline areas, which allow fresh water from the mountains and salt water from the ocean to flow in and out. Fish enter through slotted gates and can't get back out. The ponds are monitored to make sure they are healthy.
"Our ancestors, they could ... sustainably feed themselves, no problem," said Luka Mossman, a Native Hawaiian who grew up working on a traditional fishpond. He is now helping study and restore such ponds with the nonprofit environmental group Conservation International.
"You constantly watch how the natural system works, and you adapt to that," Mossman said. "You don't try and adapt the natural system to work for you."