Why GAO Did This Study
U. S. aquaculture - the raising of fish and shellfish in captivity - has generally been confined to nearshore coastal waters or in other water bodies, such as ponds, that fall under state regulation. Recently, there has been an increased interest in expanding aquaculture to offshore waters, which would involve raising fish and shellfish in the open ocean, and consequently bringing these types of operations under federal regulation. While the offshore expansion has the potential to increase U.S. aquaculture production, no comprehensive legislative or regulatory framework to manage such an expansion exists. Instead, multiple federal agencies have authority to regulate different aspects of offshore aquaculture under a variety of existing laws that were not designed for this purpose. In this context, GAO was asked to identify key issues that should be addressed in the development of an effective regulatory framework for U.S. offshore aquaculture. In conducting its assessment, GAO administered a questionnaire to a wide variety of key aquaculture stakeholders; analyzed laws, regulations, and key studies; and visited states that regulate nearshore aquaculture industries.
Although GAO is not making any recommendations, this review emphasizes the need to carefully consider a wide array of key issues as a regulatory framework for offshore aquaculture is developed. Agencies that provided official comments generally agreed with the report.
What GAO Found
In developing a regulatory framework for offshore aquaculture, it is important to consider a wide array of issues, which can be grouped into four main areas.
Program administration: Addressing the administration of an offshore program at the federal level is an important aspect of a regulatory framework. Stakeholders that GAO contacted and key studies that GAO reviewed identified specific roles and responsibilities for federal agencies, states, and regional fishery management councils. Most stakeholders and the studies agreed that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) should be the lead federal agency and emphasized that coordination with other federal agencies will also be important. In addition, stakeholders and some of the studies recommended that the states play an important role in the development and implementation of an offshore aquaculture program.
Permitting and site selection: It will also be important to establish a regulatory process that clearly identifies where aquaculture facilities can be located and for how long. For example, many stakeholders stated that offshore facilities will need the legal right, through a permit or lease, to occupy an area of the ocean. However, stakeholders varied on the specific terms of the permits or leases, including their duration. Some stakeholders said that longer permits could make it easier for investors to recoup their investments, while others said that shorter ones could facilitate closer scrutiny of environmental impacts. This variability is also reflected in the approaches taken by states that regulate aquaculture in their waters. One state issues 20-year leases while another issues shorter leases. Stakeholders supported various approaches for siting offshore facilities, such as case-by-case site evaluations and prepermitting some locations.
Environmental management: A process to assess and mitigate the environmental impacts of offshore operations is another important aspect of a regulatory framework. For example, many stakeholders told GAO of the value of reviewing the potential cumulative environmental impacts of offshore operations over a broad ocean area before any facilities are sited. About half of them said that a facility-by-facility environmental review should also be required. Two states currently require facility-level reviews for operations in state waters. In addition, stakeholders, key studies, and state regulators generally supported an adaptive monitoring approach to ensure flexibility in monitoring changing environmental conditions. Other important areas to address include policies to mitigate the potential impacts of escaped fish and to remediate environmental damage.
Research: Finally, a regulatory framework needs to include a federal research component to help fill current gaps in knowledge about offshore aquaculture. For example, stakeholders supported federally funded research on developing (1) alternative fish feeds, (2) best management practices to minimize environmental impacts, (3) data on how escaped aquaculture fish might impact wild fisheries, and (4) strategies to breed and raise fish while effectively managing disease. A few researchers said that the current process of funding research for aquaculture is not adequate because the research grants are funded over periods that are too short to accommodate certain types of research, such as hatchery research and offshore demonstration projects.
Results in Brief
In developing an effective regulatory framework for U.S. offshore aquaculture, it is important to consider a wide array of issues. These issues can be grouped into four main areas: program administration, permitting and site selection, environmental management, and research. Aquaculture stakeholders whom we contacted generally agreed on how to address some specific issues within each of these four broad areas, but differed on how to address other specific implementation issues.
- Program administration. Identifying a lead federal agency, as well as the roles and responsibilities of other federal agencies and states, is key to the administration of an offshore aquaculture program. Most stakeholders we contacted said that NOAA should be the lead federal agency to (1) manage a permitting or leasing program for offshore aquaculture facilities and (2) coordinate with other federal agencies. About half of these stakeholders supported NOAA because of its expertise in fisheries and oceans management. In addition, most stakeholders emphasized that formal agreements among agencies are essential to enhance federal coordination and take advantage of each agency’s unique expertise. For example, EPA has knowledge of technologies and practices that control and reduce pollutants from marine aquaculture, and the lead federal agency for offshore aquaculture could draw on that experience to protect water quality in federal waters.
Regarding the extent to which states should be involved in regulating offshore aquaculture, three of the key studies that we reviewed recommended that states be involved in the development and implementation of a regulatory framework for offshore aquaculture. In addition, a majority of stakeholders agreed that states should be able to “opt out” of the offshore aquaculture program.
If a state chose to opt out, it would be refusing to allow any offshore aquaculture to take place in the federal waters adjacent to its state waters. However, the stakeholders also said that states that have not opted out of the program should not have the authority to veto individual offshore aquaculture projects. For example, one stakeholder said he did not support allowing states to veto individual offshore aquaculture projects because few businesses would be interested in investing time and money in obtaining federal offshore aquaculture approvals if any individual state could veto the federal decision. Finally, stakeholders and studies generally agreed that regional fishery management councils should review or comment on offshore aquaculture projects but not be able to veto such projects.
- Permitting and site selection. Permits or leases are important to establish the terms and conditions for offshore aquaculture operations. Specifically, stakeholders we contacted, and the University of Delaware study, emphasized that offshore aquaculturists will need the legal right—through a permit or lease—to occupy a given tract of ocean. Some stakeholders were concerned that without legal rights defined in a permit or lease, aquaculturists might not be able to obtain needed business loans. However, stakeholders expressed a range of opinions on the specific terms of offshore aquaculture permits and leases. For example, some stakeholders supported permits or leases with long time frames—20 years or more—to allow investors to recoup their investments, while others advocated for permits or leases with shorter time frames to ensure close scrutiny of environmental impacts during the lease or permit renewal process.
In addition, site selection—developing a process to approve offshore aquaculture facility locations—is an important component of regulating offshore aquaculture. Stakeholders supported a variety of approaches that the lead aquaculture agency could use to site new offshore aquaculture facilities, including (1) reviewing and approving sites on a case-by-case basis and (2) prepermitting locations by approving sites independently of and prior to submitting individual facility applications.
- Environmental management. A regulatory process to review, monitor, and mitigate the potential environmental impacts of offshore aquaculture facilities will also be important. Many stakeholders recognized the value of reviewing the potential environmental impacts of offshore aquaculture over a broad ocean area before any offshore aquaculture facilities are sited—which should involve preparing a programmatic environmental impact statement.
A few considered this a sufficient level of environmental review, while others said that a follow-up, facility-specific environmental review should also be required. In addition, the majority of stakeholders supported conducting environmental monitoring at offshore aquaculture facilities to identify changes to the benthic community and disease, among other things. Such monitoring is done for nearshore marine aquaculture programs in Hawaii, Maine, and Washington, although these states vary in the frequency and intensity of monitoring they require.
Most stakeholders also supported using an adaptive monitoring approach that would alter monitoring requirements over time as better information became available and help focus on the types of monitoring that are demonstrated to be the most appropriate for tracking changes to the environment. Finally, stakeholders had varied opinions on policies that could be used to mitigate the potential impacts of escaped fish and remediate environmental damage. For example, most stakeholders supported requiring aquaculturists to develop plans to address fish escapes from their proposed facilities. Stakeholders’ views varied, however, on whether aquaculturists should be allowed to raise genetically modified species in offshore aquaculture facilities.
- Research. Finally, research to address gaps in current knowledge on a variety of issues for offshore aquaculture is an important component of a regulatory framework.
Stakeholders, and the four key studies we reviewed, generally agreed that the federal government should fund such research. Most stakeholders said that the federal government should place particular importance on funding research on (1) developing fish feeds that do not rely heavily on harvesting wild fish, (2) developing best management practices, (3) exploring how escaped offshore aquaculture-raised fish might impact wild fish populations, and (4) developing strategies to breed and raise fish while effectively managing disease.
Currently, NOAA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) fund research on marine aquaculture through, for example, competitive grants. However, some researchers said that grants are funded over time periods that are too short to accommodate certain types of research. For example, researchers in Hawaii told us that the development of healthy breeding fish to supply offshore aquaculture operations can often require years of intensive breeding efforts, but that it is difficult to obtain consistent research funding over this long time period.
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