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Gulf of Mexico Proposals for Aquaculture Report

by the Fish Site Editor
21 December 2007, at 12:00am

This is a summary of the public hearing draft of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council's Red Drum, Reef Fish and Stone Crab Fishery Management Plans and the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic Fishery Management Council's Joint Spiny Lobster and Coastal Migratory Pelagics Fishery Management Plans

Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council

Executive Summary

Demand for protein is increasing in the United States; nearly 75 percent of all seafood consumed is currently imported from other countries. As demand grows, commercial wild-capture fisheries will not likely be adequate to meet this growing demand. Aquaculture is one method to meet current and future demands for seafood.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council has authority to regulate fisheries in federal waters, including aquaculture. Currently, NOAA Fisheries Service requires an exempted fishing permit (EFP) to conduct aquaculture in federal waters. This permit is of limited duration and is not intended for commercial production of fish, making aquaculture in federal waters not viable under the current permitting process.

The purpose of this FMP amendment is to develop a regional permitting process for regulating and promoting environmentally sound and economically sustainable aquaculture in the Gulf EEZ. Establishing such a process requires the Council to develop a generic amendment to their FMPs. This amendment, including the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS), would serve as the basis for evaluating the effects of issuing a permit for Gulf of Mexico aquaculture operations. Project specific effects would be further analyzed through additional National Environmental Policy Act analyses if they fall outside the scope of the actions proposed herein.

This amendment considers eight actions, each with an associated range of management alternatives, for establishing a regional permitting process. The full range of alternatives considered in this amendment is described in Section 4.0. A detailed discussion of the environmental consequences associated with each action and alternative is provided in Section 6. The proposed measures and actions in this amendment are all intended to assist the Council and NOAA Fisheries Service in achieving the purpose of this amendment, which is to maximize benefits to the Nation by establishing a regional permitting process to manage the development of an environmentally sound and economically sustainable aquaculture industry in federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

By establishing a regional permitting process for aquaculture, the Council will be positioned to achieve there primary goal of increasing maximum sustainable yield (MSY) and optimum yield (OY) of federal fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico by supplementing harvest of wild caught species with cultured product.

A short summary of each action is provided below.

Major Conclusions

Figure 1. Illustration of an Aquapod designed by Ocean Farm Technologies, www.oceanfarmtech.com

Action 1: Types of Aquaculture Permits Required – This action considers establishing a permit for conducting aquaculture in federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The Council’s preferred alternative (Preferred Alternative 2) would require a NOAA Fisheries Service permit to operate a marine aquaculture facility in the Gulf of Mexico EEZ. Other alternatives considered by the Council included maintaining the requirement for an EFP (Alternative 1) or requiring separate NOAA Fisheries Service operational and siting permits (Alternative 3). Aquaculture under the current EFP process is not viable, while requiring a separate siting permit would be partially duplicative of other federal permitting requirements already in place (e.g., Army Corps of Engineers siting permits). Preferred Alternative 2 would still provide NOAA Fisheries Service authority to evaluate various siting criteria when deciding whether or not to issue an operational permit. Proposed criteria are summarized in Action 6 (Designation of Sites or Areas for Aquaculture). In order to receive and maintain such a permit, conditions proposed in Actions 3 (Permit Conditions) and 8 (Recordkeeping and Reporting) would also have to be met. Alternative 1 would restrict the development of offshore aquaculture in the Gulf and therefore would result in no impacts to the physical, biological, and ecological environments unless an aquaculture facility was able to successfully develop an operation under the current EFP permitting process. Preferred Alternatives 2 and Alternative 3 would create a regulatory permitting process and therefore would indirectly effect the physical, biological, and ecological environments by allowing the potential development of an aquaculture industry. Impacts to the physical and biological environments would depend on numerous factors, including where a facility is sited, the potential for fish escapement, the types of species allowed for aquaculture, the business practices of an operation, etc. Preferred alternatives selected in other Actions within this amendment are intended to mitigate or prevent impacts to wild Gulf resources resulting from the permitting of marine aquaculture operations. Such measures include extensive permit conditions and recordkeeping requirements (Actions 3 and 8), a requirement to use only native, non-transgenic species for culture (Action 4), case-by-case review of allowable marine aquaculture systems (Action 5), and siting criteria (Action 6).

Action 2: Permit Duration – This action proposes permit durations ranging from one year (EFP permit) (Alternative 1) to indefinitely (Alternative 2(d)). The Council’s preferred alternative (Preferred Alternative 2(b)) would allow permits to be effective for 10 years, with renewals every five years thereafter. Ten years is considered by many to be the minimum permit duration necessary to attract financial investment at reasonable rates of return. The duration of permit issuance will not have any direct effects on the physical, biological, or ecological environments, but will indirectly effects these environments. Permit duration is of primary importance for business planning purposes and not for monitoring effects on the various environments. Regardless of the length of the permit, NOAA Fisheries Service would regularly review operations for compliance with governing regulations (see Actions 3 and 8). This will ensure operations are operating properly and not causing unacceptable impacts to the biological or ecological environments.

Action 3: Permit Conditions – This action proposes conditions aquaculture operations would have to meet for an operational permit (Action 1). The Council’s preferred alternative (Preferred Alternative 3) would require aquaculture operations obtain an assurance bond, describe plans for maintaining genetic diversity, rearing and spawning broodstock, environmental monitoring, and aquatic animal health. The preferred alternative also includes requirements to enhance enforcement capabilities, a “use it or lose it” provision, and numerous other permit conditions . All of these conditions would have to be met to issue and/or maintain an operational permit. The assurance bond would require an operation remove structures associated with the operation as a condition of the permit, thereby diminishing long-term impacts that could result from structures remaining in the environment. The required management plans will provide NOAA Fisheries Service with critical information before issuance of a permit. These plans will allow for review of an aquaculture operations business practices to ensure they are environmentally sound and appropriate to prevent, to the extent practicable, impacts on the environment and wild stocks. The “use it or lose it” provision would require permit holders to begin operation of a facility within two years of permit issuance. This will discourage speculative entry. The final requirements of the preferred alternative require other information to aid in enforcement, monitoring, and permit administration The Council also considered not specifying permit conditions (Alternative 1) and requiring conditions based on current EFP regulations (Alternative 2). Preferred Alternative 3 would result in the greatest benefits to the biological and physical environments by providing necessary safeguards for environmentally sustainable aquaculture. These safeguards would assist the Council and NOAA Fisheries Service in preventing, or minimizing to the extent practicable, impacts on water quality, benthic habitat, and wild fish stocks. Preferred Alternative 3 results in the greatest economic and administrative costs of any of the alternatives considered, but these costs are more than offset by the benefits to the biological, physical, and social environments.

Figure 2. Illustration of Open Ocean Sea Station by Ocean Spar, www.oceanspar.com www.oceanfarmtech.com

Action 4: Species Allowed for Aquaculture – This action considers species that would be allowed for aquaculture. The Council’s preferred alternative (Preferred Alternative 4) would allow the aquaculture of all Council managed species, except corals and shrimp. Only native, non-transgenic species would be allowed for culture. The Council would also request NOAA Fisheries Service develop concurrent rulemaking to allow aquaculture of highly migratory species. There is some evidence of the detrimental effects of non-native species on ecosystems. By allowing only native, non-transgenic species for culture, the potential for negative impacts on the biological, physical, and ecological environments will be eliminated or significantly reduced. Other alternatives considered by the Council included not specifying species for aquaculture (Alternative 1), only allowing Council managed finfish to be cultured (Alternative 2), and allowing all species managed by the Council, except shrimp, corals, and goliath and Nassau grouper (Alternative 3). Under Preferred Alternative 4, the culture of live rock would continue to be regulated by management measures approved in Amendments 2 and 3 to the Coral and Coral Reef FMPs.

Action 5: Allowable Marine Aquaculture Systems – This action specifies the types of aquaculture systems that would be allowed for culture. The Council’s preferred alternative (Preferred Alternative 4) would provide NOAA Fisheries Service authority to evaluate each proposed aquaculture system on a case-by-case basis. Other alternatives considered include: not specifying allowable systems (Alternative 1), allowing only cages and net pens (Alternative 2), and allowing cages, net pens, and other systems for the culture of various invertebrates (Alternative 3). Unlike Alternatives 2 and 3, Preferred Alterantive 4 would allow for novel new aquaculture systems to be used as they are developed and provide aquaculture operations with the greatest amount of flexibility when selecting systems for culture of a wide-array of species. For these reasons, Preferred Alternative 4 would provide the greatest benefits to the physical, biological, social, and economic environments. However, because aquaculture grow-out systems would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, the preferred alternative would also provide for a greater burden on NOAA Fisheries Service staff.

Action 6: Designation of Sites or Areas for Aquaculture – This action proposes designating sites or areas for marine aquaculture. Proper siting of an aquaculture facility is critical to both an operation’s success and the protection of the surrounding physical, biological, and ecological environments. If a facility is not properly sited, there is potential for significant environmental impacts to occur. These could range from habitat degradation of surrounding benthos to changes in water quality (e.g., low dissolved oxygen or increased nutrients). To prevent impacts to the biological and physical environments, Action 6 proposes either developing siting criteria for facilities (Alternative 3 and Preferred Alternative 4) or developing pre-authorized areas for marine aquaculture (Alternative 2). The Council also considered not specifying criteria or designating areas where aquaculture may occur (Alternative 1). The Council’s preferred alternative (Preferred Alternative 4) would not establish specific areas for marine aquaculture, but would establish general siting criteria to be applied on a case-bycase basis. This would allow NOAA Fisheries Service to determine siting locations that minimize or eliminate the potential for environmental impacts. The benefits to the biological and physical environments are expected to be greater than Alternative 1 and similar to Alternatives 2 and 3. Preferred Alternative 4 and Alternative 3 potentially provide aquaculture firms with the greatest flexibility and could yield the greatest Net National Benefits compared to Alternative 1 or Alternative 2.

Action 7: Establish Buffer Zones for Marine Aquaculture Facilities – This action proposes establishing buffer zones around marine aquaculture facilities. The Council’s preferred alternative (Preferred Alternative 1) would not restrict access around a marine aquaculture facility. Alternative 2 would restrict access around a marine aquaculture facility. The Council does have authority to create zones that excludes fishing or fishing vessels. Creation of buffer zones for aquaculture facilities would potentially provide limited benefits to investors; particularly in terms of liability issues and protection of investment. Restricting access around a facility may directly affect the physical, biological, and ecological environment by protecting species known to aggregate around structure. Aquaculture facilities have been shown as aggregation sites for many wild species. Additionally, the lack of anchoring or any other interactions that may occur with the physical environment will benefit the benthos of these restricted sites. Also, preventing access around a facility will reduce the likelihood of damage to a facility, and particularly cages and net pens, thereby reducing any potential impacts associated with fish escapement. Overall, Alternative 2 would provide greater benefits to the physical, biological, economic, and ecological environments when compared to Preferred Alternative 1. However, the social environment may be negatively effected if buffer zones are perceived as a form of marine protected area that limits where fishermen can catch fish

Action 8: Recordkeeping and Reporting – This action proposes recordkeeping and reporting requirements for aquaculture operations. As mentioned in the discussion for Action 1 above, these requirements would be part of the conditions for maintaining an operational aquaculture permit and would allow NOAA Fisheries Service to evaluate the impacts of a marine aquaculture operation. The Council’s preferred alternative (Preferred Alternative 2) includes a myriad of recordkeeping and reporting requirements, such as providing NOAA Fisheries Service with relevant federal and state permits, reporting to NOAA Fisheries Service the harvesting and landings of cultured fish, and reporting incidents of disease, escapement, marine mammal and migratory bird entanglement. Several additional records and reports would also be required, including a standardized annual report to address all requirements listed in Action 8. The intent of these requirements is to minimize or prevent impacts to wild stocks, habitat, and other biological resources. The Council also considered another alternative (Alternative 1) that would allow the Regional Administrator to specify recordkeeping and reporting requirements as specified in EFP regulations. Preferred Alternative 2 requires a more comprehensive list of recordkeeping and reporting requirements than Alternative 1, and therefore would benefit the physical and biological environments more. Record keeping and reporting is an administrative function and would directly affect the administrative environment. Applicants would incur costs associated with preparing reports and maintaining records and the burden on NOAA Fisheries Service would be increased to review records and reports for compliance with permit conditions. However, these costs are outweighed by the environmental safeguards afforded to the physical and biological environments.

Areas of Controversy

Development of a regulatory framework for aquaculture has been controversial. Controversy has stemmed from several factors including, but not limited to:

  • Concerns about potential impacts to the environment (e.g., water quality, habitat degradation, etc.) and wild fish stocks (e.g., genetic modification, competition, entanglement, etc.) resulting from this action;
  • Competing interests between fishermen, fishing communities, and aquaculture operations; and,
  • he exclusive use of public resources for private profit.

Common concerns regarding marine aquaculture include impacts to water quality and essential fish habitat, fish escapement and disease, entanglement and attraction of wildlife, use of invasive species that may compete with wild stocks, loss of fishing grounds, and user conflicts due to the potential for increased competition. Section 6.1 discusses each of these potential impacts and environmental consequences in greater detail and Section 6.13 discusses several unavoidable adverse effects that may result from the proposed actions. The proposed actions and preferred alternatives in this amendment are intended to minimize, to the extent practicable, impacts to the physical, biological, social, and economic environments. Measures to mitigate the impacts mentioned above, which are often the major causes of controversy, are discussed in Section 6.11. These include the exclusive use of non-genetically modified, native species from the Gulf of Mexico (Action 4) for aquaculture, extensive permitting, siting, and recordkeeping requirements (Actions 3, 6, and 8), and the use of reliable offshore aquaculture systems that would be approved on a case-by-case basis (Action 5).

Further Reading

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July 2007

the Fish Site Editor

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