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Offshore aquaculture farms, like this SeaStation, must be tough enough to withstand the open ocean.

NOAA

White House effort to boost marine aquaculture raises environmental concerns

The United States imports far more seafood than it produces, creating a trade deficit that reached $16.8 billion in 2017. Now, the Trump administration aims to boost domestic fishing and aquaculture in federal waters. The plan is drawing plaudits from industry, but darts from conservationists.

The directive to federal agencies, announced last week by the White House and to be published in the Federal Register on Tuesday, would speed permits and environmental reviews for new aquaculture farms. It also instructs federally chartered regional fisheries councils to look for ways to cut bureaucratic red tape and increase catches of wild fish.

“This is huge,” says Margaret Henderson, campaign manager for Stronger America Through Seafood, an industry trade group. “It’s a great show of support.”

Critics, however, are skeptical. “I don’t think this is the path forward,” says Whitley Saumweber of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who helped oversee federal ocean policy during the Obama administration. Although the White House order contains some good ideas for improving aquaculture policy, he says it lacks adequate environmental protections. “It’s premature and it’s trying to short-circuit what should otherwise be a legislative process” led by Congress.

Aquaculture is booming worldwide in lakes and along coasts. Environmental groups have criticized some marine farms, especially those close to shore, for problems such as nutrient pollution and spreading parasites that harm native species. Deeper water sites, in addition, can face rougher ocean conditions that could raise the risk of damage to pens and accidental release of fish that might mate with and weaken native species.

For industry, the main challenge to developing offshore aquaculture in U.S. federal waters is lack of clarity over permits, Henderson says. A half-dozen federal agencies are involved in oversight of federal waters, each with its own procedures. That makes the permit process more time consuming, expensive, and confusing, she says. Several aquaculture firms have applications pending, but only one has been approved—a mussel farm off the coast of California that declared bankruptcy this year.

The executive order would clarify the situation by putting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in charge of permitting aquaculture farms outside of state waters, which extend 5 kilometers from shore. It instructs NOAA to complete within 2 years the environmental reviews of proposed aquaculture projects that are required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

Hallie Templeton, an oceans campaigner with Friends of the Earth, says that deadline is unrealistic. “Compressing this into a 2-year time frame is very concerning,” she says.

Environmental groups are also dubious about the order’s directive to the Army Corps of Engineers to develop a nationwide permit for finfish aquaculture. Such a standardized permit system—which is much faster for applicants—already exists for coastal shellfish farms, but recently suffered a court defeat for not adequately considering the cumulative environmental damage that might be caused by multiple operations. “I’m extremely skeptical of it being lawful to use a nationwide permit for fish aquaculture offshore,” says Amy van Saun, an attorney with the Center for Food Safety, which sued the corps over the shellfish permit. “I don’t see any way that [the fish aquaculture permits] could cumulatively have only minimal adverse impacts.”

Stronger America Through Seafood says its members are particularly pleased about a different part of the order. NOAA should identify two Aquaculture Opportunity Areas suitable for fish farms. This makes sense, she says, because NOAA has the expertise to research appropriate sites.

Saumweber says the order does reflect some good ideas. “I think there are elements in here—regulatory coherence, identifying a lead agency, and national permitting schemes—that would need to be part of any national aquaculture policy,” he says. “What’s really missing is the other half of a sound aquaculture policy, which is the standards by which you’re going to develop those permits.”

Everyone agrees that a new federal law—which Congress would need to create—is required to grant NOAA authority to issue permits for fish aquaculture in federal waters. Henderson says that only such a law will provide the certainty investors need to front the millions of dollars required to develop offshore farms. “If I’m an investor, I’m not banking on an executive order; I need the support of federal law.” In the meantime, Henderson says, the executive order gets the agencies working on developing the groundwork for permitting.

In March, a bipartisan bill (H.R. 6191) that is somewhat similar to the White House order was introduced in the House of Representatives. It authorizes $350 million over 5 years to boost aquaculture in federal waters; an unspecified amount would go to R&D grants. Henderson expects a companion bill to be introduced in the Senate next month. “It’s a really, really exciting time for those of us who’ve been pushing for this for a long time,” she says.

Previous efforts to pass such a bill have failed, however. “There are grave concerns in the fishing industry, and other coastal communities,” Templeton says.

A strong aquaculture law, comparable to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act that covers wild fisheries, would have benefits that extend beyond local communities, Saumweber says. The United States has “a great deal of moral authority on the global stage with regard to sustainable capture fisheries because of the strength of our domestic fishery management program through Magnuson-Stevens, and that has given us the ability to really lead and drive focus on fisheries policy. If we do not have a similar aquaculture program, we’ll be at a disadvantage in trying to talk about how to do this appropriately and sustainably.”