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Issues Confronting Offshore Aquaculture in the US


TheFishSite Senior Editor, Chris Harris, looks at some of the issues raised by the controversial NOAA report, Offshore Aquaculture in the United States: Economic Considerations, Implications & Opportunities.

The role of domestic aquaculture in America's seafood supply has sparked a debate centring on a number of marine management, economic, environmental, conservation, health, social, and regulatory issues.

Twenty years ago fish farming in the sea around the US was an emerging technology but now it is one of the most talked about and at times controversial technologies.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report - Offshore Aquaculture in the United States: Economic Considerations, Implications & Opportunities - which itself has sparked some controversy among environmental groups in the US, looks at:

  • Trends and factors shaping aquaculture today;
  • Forces that will drive it in the future;
  • Inputs and outputs necessary to sustain its growth;
  • Economic consequences of offshore aquaculture development in the United States; and
  • Benefits and costs of such a domestic industry to the nation.

Specifically, the study considers:

  • The effect on US offshore aquaculture of global and national trends in seafood supply and demand and other factors that affect market prices, such as cost of feed and technology, social factors, government regulations, and access to sites.
  • Useful models from other food segments of the US economy, such as the catfish and poultry industries.
  • Interactions between aquaculture and wild harvest fisheries.
  • Economic analyses from the broadest to the narrowest scale.

The study also considers the broad, long-term implications of an established domestic offshore aquaculture industry in the United States and the role such an industry might play in helping to meet global demand for seafood, alternative energy, and other sustainable uses of the ocean.

"It is important to note that much of the analysis in this study, although limited to offshore aquaculture, applies to all US aquaculture," writes Michael Rubino in the introduction to the report.

Meeting a Rising Seafood Demand

In 1969 the Stratton Commission report was the guiding light for aquaculture for three decades and was the founding initiative of NOAA itself.

Mr Rubino shows in the opening of the report that marine aquaculture for the US is mainly oysters, clams, mussels and salmon and despite the importance of the industry aquaculture only meets 7.2 per cent of the US seafood demand.

Marine aquaculture only supplies 1.5 per cent of American sea food demand, and compares poorly with the expansion of aquaculture in the rest of the world where it has been expanding at a fast rate.

The United Nations FAO estimates that by 2030 another 40 million tonnes more of aquatic food will be needed to satisfy world demand and the FAO believes most of the expansion to meet this demand will be through aquaculture.

"Globalization has profoundly affected US seafood trade. We now import 80% of our seafood - 2.4 mmt or 5.4 billion pounds per year valued at $13.4 billion in 2006," Mr Rubino says in the report.

The case of aquaculture production of seafood according to the report is that it not only increases supply, but also reduces uncertainty about consistency of supply and assures the consumer of a consistent and affordable product.

"US companies, investors, and farmers have participated in the global aquaculture industry by exporting technology, equipment, seedstock, services, investment, feed, and grain. A significant, but undocumented, portion of US seafood imports are linked to these exports," Mr Rubino says.

"In addition to supply and production trends, health and nutritional concerns are likely to affect seafood consumption in the United States. Doctors and nutritionists are urging Americans to eat more seafood to improve their health.

"But if Americans increase their seafood consumption from one to two meals per week, where will this seafood come from?"

He says that offshore aquaculture is one of the areas that could supply this new and growing demand, together with the use of closed systems, ponds in low salinity water and other coastal aquaculture methods.

Practicality of Offshore Farming

Mr Rubino shows how farming finfish, shellfish and seaweed in offshore waters is technically feasible and he says that the US is leading the way in this form of technology.

He says that all species including molluscs can be farmed off shore but the industry can only be established if those developing it are allowed to go ahead.

He said offshore farming is attracting investment, but the US investors are investing in offshore farms in other countries around the world.

Mr Rubino says that the report prepared by NOAA looks at the competitive advantages and disadvantages of developing a US offshore farming system as well as the economic viability of such schemes and the knock-on effects that developing offshore farms will have.

He says that consumers will benefit from having access to affordable locally produced safe seafood and he added that there are also many synergies between aquaculture and wild capture fisheries.

Expansion might be restricted by supplies of fish meal and oil for fish feed, but he says alternatives can be developed.

He adds that developing offshore farms will also help other aspects of the fish industry including recreational fishing and stocks of fish by restoring endangered species.

He says that while there will be competition between the farmers and the wild catch operators, there would be competition of a different sort if the farms are not developed.

"The marketplace is global and the demand for seafood products is growing," he said.

Meeting Environmental Concerns

Mr Rubino adds that environmental concerns with regard to aquaculture are the subject of much debate and widely differing views.

He says these issues are closely scrutinised in the report.

"These authors and others note that competitive pressures, innovation, and efficient regulations are pushing aquaculture toward best management or sustainable practices," he says.

"The awareness of environmental constraints and issues is timely, and even essential for the aquaculture industry."

He adds that the study presents a framework for analysing the economics of offshore aquaculture, preliminary results from economic models, and lessons learned from related sectors.

"Several of the authors show that offshore aquaculture can be economically viable under certain cost and revenue conditions.

"Viable operations will in turn create jobs from coastal communities to the country's farming heartland."

He concludes: "In my view, if offshore aquaculture proceeds in US federal waters, various scales and regional approaches are likely to emerge. Right now, offshore aquaculture is still in its infancy.

"On top of that, US aquaculture is diverse, and the regulatory structure for offshore aquaculture is still uncertain, so the technologies, species grown, cost structures, markets, and corporate structures of future offshore operations are still unknown.

"However, the pioneering offshore aquaculture ventures and research projects in US state waters provide some indications of where the industry might be headed during the next decade."

Further Reading

- You can view the full report by clicking here.