One Possible Future of Fish

Open-ocean aquaculture could reduce environmental concerns associated with aquaculture in coastal waters. Photo courtesy of NOAA Fisheries.

We’re always looking for well-balanced discussions on innovative but occasionally controversial forms of food production.  Open ocean aquaculture is an example, and we appreciate the Food & Environment Reporting Network for offering just that, suggesting that many of the environmental concerns with aquaculture are mitigated by using deep water locations.

President of the New Orleans–based Gulf Seafood Institute, Harlon Pearce knows better than anyone that wild fisheries alone can’t supply U.S. consumers’ growing demand for fish. Which is why he’s doing his best to bring everyone to the table to achieve one goal: farming the Gulf of Mexico.

There are currently no commercial finfish operations in U.S. federal waters, located between 3 and 200 miles (5 to 322 kilometers) offshore. Pearce and others are convinced that jumping into the rapidly growing open ocean aquaculture industry expanding into offshore waters globally is the future of sustainable seafood.

In 2015, per capita fish consumption in the United States was 15.5 pounds (7 kilograms), up from 12.5 pounds (5.7 kilograms) in 1980. Globally, however, the amount of all wild-caught fish has stayed relatively stagnant — at around 80–90 million metric tons (90–100 million tons) — for the past two decades.

Globally, in total, around 160 million metric tons (180 million tons) of fish — wild, farmed, marine and freshwater — are produced to satisfy annual demand.

The Gulf of Mexico annually yields a catch of about 29,000 metric tons (32,000 tons) of wild-caught finfish, which are bony fish such as snapper or grouper. Given regional demand, Pearce says, “our wild marine fish don’t go too far.” To his point, in New Orleans’ French Quarter there is a seafood restaurant on practically every block.

The World Bank predicts that by 2030, two-thirds of fish being consumed will be farmed. Which is why Pearce and others believe the U.S. should be farming fish in its open waters.

Producing more of our seafood in the U.S. means that consumers will have local, safe, sustainable choices, explained Michael Rubino, director of the Washington D.C.-based Office of Aquaculture at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Fisheries, when he announced a federally approved plan taking shape in the Gulf of Mexico. The gulf, by volume, is second only to Alaska in terms of U.S. wild-catch fisheries. In January 2016, NOAA authorized up to 20 open-ocean aquaculture permits for the gulf. In total, these could produce 29,000 metric tons (32,000 tons) of fish — effectively doubling the amount of finfish currently coming out of the area. (A draft environmental impact statement that would help guide offshore aquaculture development in Hawaii is expected later this year, and public hearings this summer will decide the fate of a proposed finfish farm to be located 8 miles off the coast of Hampton Bays, New York).

Marine aquaculture, so far largely based in coastal waters, has long been anathema to environmentalists, its reputation blighted by everything from pollution and disease outbreaks to the destruction of mangroves and genetic contamination from escaped fish. Open-ocean aquaculture could reduce some of these environmental concerns, assuming it is sited in deep, swift waters, reducing the potential for pollution and disease without destroying habitat, and remaining challenges, such as fish escaping and forage fish being used as feed in huge quantities, have promising fixes.

As a result, some environmentalists are saying open-ocean aquaculture deserves a fresh look. Since all food we grow, on land or in the sea, has some environmental impact, isn’t aquaculture worth exploring if it can satisfy rising demand for healthier protein with less impact than, say, beef or pigs?

Read the full report here.

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