Does the U.S. Need More Fish Farms?

Americans consume 7 million tons of seafood every year—6 million of which is imported. Over half of these imports come from fish farms, most of which are in China. China accounts for 61% of the world’s fish farm or “aquaculture” production—the U.S. just 5%. To encourage more domestic production and create jobs, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) and the Department of Commerce (DOC) are announcing initiatives to open up U.S. federal waters to fish farming for the first time. The newest initiative, officially called the Aquaculture Technology Transfer Initiative, is the third in a series based on aquaculture policies drawn up by NOAA and the DOC. “Job creation is a major focus of this administration,” said NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco. “This initiative provides an opportunity to support innovation and growth in the private aquaculture sector, resulting in a healthy, local seafood supply and job growth at our working waterfronts.”

The market for farmed seafood is thriving—the global consumption of farmed seafood has skyrocketed from 1 million tons in 1950 to 52.5 million tons in 2008. Today about half of the world’s seafood is derived from aquaculture, a method that is pitched as a solution to satisfying an increasing population’s appetite without overfishing the oceans. “As we turn the corner to ending overfishing with wild-caught fisheries, I think it’s particularly important to simultaneously build a sustainable aquaculture industry here in the United States,” Lubchenco continued.

But farm-raised fish are typically fed large amounts of feed composed of smaller, wild ocean fish, taking food away from declining wild fish populations. Fish farms have also been known to pack fish tight in pens or ponds that are rampant with disease and pollution from fish waste. That waste, which is estimated to be at levels high enough to equal the sewage from a town of 20,000 people, can enter coastal waters and in turn create low-oxygen dead zones that kill marine life. Dead zones are becoming an increasingly serious environmental issue, including in the Gulf of Mexico. Last month, the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (ISPO) reported that three major factors have been present in the handful of mass extinctions that have occurred in the past: an increase of both hypoxia (low oxygen) and anoxia (lack of oxygen that creates dead zones) in the oceans, warming and acidification. They went on to warn that the combination of these factors will inevitably cause a mass marine extinction if swift action isn’t taken to improve conditions.

Additionally, to fight the diseases brought on by overcrowding fish, Chinese fish farmers have liberally used antibiotics and other drugs, including malachite green, a potential carcinogen that was banned by Beijing in 2002 but has shown up since in fish exports.

Organizations like the Ocean Conservancy are concerned that NOAA’s new initiative is “simply not the full suite of national standards we need” to ensure that the environmental destruction caused by low-regulation fish farms in China won’t also happen here. “NOAA needs to call on Congress to empower the agency with the needed authority to protect our ocean from the well-known environmental risks caused by ocean fish farming,” the organization stated on their website. “There is currently no guarantee that any new fish farms will be required to meet these guidelines. Unless and until comprehensive new federal legislation that addresses environmental, socio-economic and liability concerns is passed, open ocean aquaculture should not proceed in our ocean.”

Zach Corrigan, aquaculture expert at Food & Water Watch, said corporate interests are pushing big aquaculture to the detriment of the environment. He went on to say that NOAA’s new policies do not promote innovative, lower-impact aquaculture systems.

“You’re looking at a policy that’s very much set on promoting the wrong kind of fish-farming,” he said.

But NOAA and the DOC insist they are promoting “sustainable domestic marine aquaculture.”

“Aquaculture can be a significant contributor to a ‘blue-green’ economy that both contributes to and benefits from healthy oceans and coasts,” said Lubchenco.