Congress should enact legislation to ensure that strong environmental standards are in place to regulate the siting and conduct of offshore marine aquaculture, according to an independent panel of leaders from scientific, policymaking, business, and conservation institutions. At the same time, the Marine Aquaculture Task Force suggests that the federal government should provide funding and incentives for research, development, and deployment of technologies, and techniques for sustainable marine aquaculture.
Aquaculture is the farming of fish, shellfish, and aquatic plants, and it accounts for nearly one half of all seafood consumed in the world today. The industry is growing rapidly as wild fish stocks decline.
The Task Force—organized by researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), with support from The Pew Charitable Trusts and The Lenfest Foundation—was charged with examining the risks and benefits of marine aquaculture and developing a set of national policy recommendations to guide future development of our oceans.
Members of the panel have been meeting since the summer of 2005, and they will present their findings in a media conference call at 3 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time on Monday, January 8.
“There is a growing need for seafood to feed a hungry world, but the world’s fisheries can no longer meet the demand,” said task force chairman Rear Adm. (ret.) Richard F. Pittenger, former WHOI vice president for Marine Facilities and Operations and a former Oceanographer of the Navy. “Half of our seafood comes from aquaculture, and that share is only going to grow. The federal government has proposed a fivefold increase in U.S. aquaculture production, and while we certainly agree with an increase, we believe it must be done in an environmentally responsible way.”
Noting that marine aquaculture would benefit from clear federal leadership, the task force recommended that Congress should assign a leading role to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for planning and regulating the industry. On one hand, the permitting and application processes should be streamlined and simplified, and there should be market-based incentives for businesses to invest in sustainable, ecologically sound fish-farming projects. At the same time, environmental risks should be evaluated and best practices should be in place before permits are granted.
In sum, the federal marine aquaculture program should be “precautionary, science-based, socially and economically compatible with affected coastal communities, transparent in decision making,” the Marine Aquaculture Task Force wrote in its final report.
Offshore aquaculture has some natural advantages over coastal fish-farming operations because open-ocean winds, waves, and currents can naturally remove excess feed and wastes. Moving operations offshore also reduces conflict with recreational and real estate interests.
But there are environmental and ecological questions, such as which species should be farmed and where, and what level of discharges from aquaculture facilities can be safely absorbed by the ocean. Some researchers are concerned that domesticated fish—and the medicines and disease outbreaks sometimes associated with high-density fish farms—could threaten natural stocks of fish.
“Our group set out to review the state of knowledge about open-ocean aquaculture and to bring interested parties together to see what is needed to move ahead in an environmentally and economically sound manner,” said task force science director Judy McDowell, chair of the WHOI Biology Department and director of the Woods Hole Sea Grant program. “People came from different points of view, honestly expressed their opinions—though sometimes divergent—and worked hard to build a consensus.”
The task force conducted fact-finding trips and public hearings in Seattle, Waimanalo (Hawaii), Anchorage, Tampa, and Woods Hole (Mass.). Members reviewed scientific literature and interviewed representatives of industry, coastal management, fishing, tribal, and conservation groups.
“We listened to the fishermen and others whose lives and livelihoods are tied to the oceans,” said former Alaska state senator Arliss Sturgulewski. “Because of the potential impacts on fisheries-dependent communities, there is strong disagreement about whether marine fish farming should expand. But there is universal agreement that if it does go forward, it should be done with appropriate safeguards for and consultation with coastal states and communities.
Bill Dewey, public affairs manager at Taylor Shellfish (Washington), offered this perspective. “It’s important to remember that marine aquaculture is not brand new. Our company has been sustainably farming shellfish in and around Puget Sound for five generations. The bays in which we farm are some of the cleanest in the country because of our dedicated efforts to protect or restore them. As we diversify species and methods used in aquaculture I appreciate the Task Force’s effort to balance appropriate aquaculture regulations with private-sector initiatives to reward environmentally beneficial practices.”
“If we are going move offshore with aquaculture, we should do it right and make sure the right policies and regulations are in place,” Pittenger added. “Modern agriculture developed without a lot of oversight and regulation, leading us to a lot of our current problems with pollution from fertilizers and pesticides. We don’t want to repeat the same mistakes in the water.”
The views expressed by the members of the Marine Aquaculture Task Force do not necessarily represent the views and positions held by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
WHOI is a private, independent marine research, engineering, and higher education organization in Falmouth, Mass. WHOI’s primary mission is to understand the oceans and their interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the ocean's role in the changing global environment. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Institution is organized into five departments, interdisciplinary institutes and a marine policy center, and conducts a joint graduate education program with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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