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Why US policymakers must take a more positive view of aquaculture

21 May 2021, at 12:01am

The USA's reliance on imported farmed seafood means that the country is essentially "exporting its environmental footprints", failing its coastal economies and neglecting an opportunity to promote best aquaculture practices.

Eric Schwaab, head of the Environmental Defense Fund’s ecosystems and oceans programme
Eric Schwaab, head of the Environmental Defense Fund’s ecosystems and oceans programme

So argues Eric Schwaab, who previously served as head of NOAA Fisheries and now leads the Environmental Defense Fund’s ecosystems and oceans programme.

In a recent post for EDF, Schwaab noted that: “Americans import over 85 percent of all the seafood we consume - and half of that is from foreign aquaculture. That means when it comes to the majority of farmed fish we eat, we’re exporting our environmental footprint while missing out on the opportunity to create greater resilience and jobs for our coastal communities here in the US.”

“Also lost is the opportunity to lead the way in developing best practices for sustainable production of healthy seafood that meets the most stringent environmental and health standards. This is most true in building a sustainable marine aquaculture industry,” he adds.

Schwaab notes that Covid has served to reinforce the need to produce more food domestically and to strengthen the US economy – something seafood is well placed to achieve.

“Seafood is far and away the most carbon-efficient animal protein. Some, such as shellfish and seaweed, is even restorative to the natural environment, improving water quality, creating new aquatic habitats and building coastal resilience. Others, like finfish production, are more complicated,” he explains.

Schwaab believes that offshore aquaculture is particularly well-placed to provide a sustainable source of protein, which is why EDF Oceans has launched a new initiative to chart a responsible path for offshore aquaculture in the US.

“Aquaculture, including potentially offshore finfish aquaculture, will play an important role in creating a sustainable future - if done the right way, with a clear focus on environmental safety, climate mitigation and equity. Now is the time to tackle the triple threat of food insecurity, climate disruptions and economic inequity,” says Schwaab.

“Already, the US benefits from nearshore aquaculture, including seaweed and shellfish farming that produce low-carbon, sustainable and nutritious seafood while making our oceans healthier in the process. We also benefit from some of the most sustainable and well-managed wild-capture fisheries in the world.

“Yet that farmed tilapia or sea bass on your plate is often produced in countries without rigorous environmental standards or social equity guidelines. In a very real way, we’re asking others to shoulder our environmental and social burdens when it comes to farmed fish. By growing more of our own nutritious and sustainable seafood here at home, we can ensure it is done the right way and meeting the most rigorous health standards.”

Schwaab is, however, still wary of the potential pitfalls facing the nascent offshore aquaculture sector.

“But as with almost all forms of food production, aquaculture presents risks to the environment and local communities. Those include equipment failures, fish escapes, interaction with wild-capture fisheries and pollution from farms. Modern aquaculture practices and advancements in technology have come a long way toward solving some of the industry’s most significant challenges. But we need to know more. The risks and benefits of offshore aquaculture must be weighed carefully with a science-first approach, and that means asking the right questions and understanding best practices,” he urges.

As a result of this ambiguity, Schwaab notes that there is more work to be done and explains that EDF are:

  • Researching, identifying and prioritizing key issues in offshore aquaculture that would benefit from further study, including the impacts of escapes, localized pollution concerns, environmentally responsible approaches to feed, and other critical issues.
  • Working with experts and policymakers to develop legislation to examine the most significant issues and help to shape a strong regulatory framework for safe, sustainable and environmentally sound aquaculture.
  • Advocating for an expanding aquaculture industry that will benefit all Americans, particularly in historically disadvantaged communities — those experiencing the greatest burdens of environmental harm, economic inequality and climate change.

“By understanding more about the risks and benefits from offshore aquaculture, and taking a science-first approach to regulations, this growing sector can be an important example of another solution we can realize from our ocean,” Schwaab concludes.