U.S. Government Opens the Door to Giant Offshore Fish Farms

The plan aims to lessen the nation’s reliance on imported seafood, but conservationists worry about the environmental impact on the ocean.
Fish farm. (Photo: Xurxo Lobato/Getty Images)
Jan 15, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Some 90 percent of the United States’ fish, crustaceans, and mollusks are imported, and a growing percentage of those catches are from overseas fish farms.

Now, the federal government has a plan it hopes will spur more homegrown aquaculture, decrease reliance on foreign seafood, and reduce overfishing.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced a rule this week that allows for large-scale fish farming in federally controlled waters three miles offshore.

That’s a big step, because near-shore and onshore aquaculture typically houses small-scale shellfish operations, such as mussel and oyster farms or pond-style fish farms that contain less-lucrative fish species such as tilapia. Near-shore operations also can pollute waterways with fish waste.

The new rule permits pelagic finfish species—the kind that like to traverse the open ocean—to be raised in huge nets miles offshore, meaning sushi favorites like amberjack and tuna could soon be farmed locally.

For now, NOAA is only permitting offshore fish farms in the Gulf Coast region, but expansion to other regions is expected. The agency wants to increase marine aquaculture production by 50 percent by 2020, noting that expansion into federal waters is key.

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“The potential for offshore aquaculture is tremendous,” Michael Rubino, director of the NOAA Fisheries office of aquaculture, said in a statement. “Today we grow most of our food on land, but we’re running out of water and arable land, so the question becomes: How are we going to produce the food that the world will need in the future? Aquaculture is sure to be part of the solution.”

In San Diego, Rose Canyon Fisheries wants to be the first to bring large-scale fish farming to the West Coast. The company is a joint venture between Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute—a nonprofit funded partially by SeaWorld—and aquaculture firm Cuna del Mar.

Its farm would include 48 cages, each about 11,000 cubic square meters, floating 4.5 miles from the Southern California coast. At full scale, the operation would be the world’s largest fish farm, capable of producing more than 5,000 tons of yellowtail, a local amberjack sold as hamachi sushi on the market, and white sea bass annually. That’s around 10 million fish a year.

But conservationists worry about giant fish farms’ environmental impact.

“It’s essentially offshore industrial-scale factory farming, and it will have some of the same kinds of environmental problems those facilities create too,” said Kristen Monsell, staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Such an operation could compromise water quality in the region and possibly contribute to toxic algal blooms in the ocean, according to environmentalists.

Additionally, they fear some farmed fish could escape and introduce diseases into the wild fish population.

The new federal rule could ease the difficulty Rose Canyon Fisheries has had acquiring the necessary permits from the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Coast Guard, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

It applied for an environmental review from the EPA in October 2014, and the agency just closed the comment period on the application this week. Still, with the potential for more than $30 million in profits, the company is hoping the project moves forward.

“We’ve got about 12 percent of the nation’s population between the coastal regions of San Diego and Santa Barbara counties,” Hubbs president Don Kent told TakePart in October 2014. “We think we can help fulfill the seafood demand here by growing it locally, instead of it coming in from the rest of the world.”