Aquaculture For Economic and Environmental Sustainability

As part of the quest for sustainability, we believe marine aquaculture could be one of the most viable solutions to the growing worldwide demand for leaner proteins in diets. Defined as “the means, the propagation, and rearing of aquatic species in controlled or selected environments, including, but not limited to, ocean ranching” by the National Aquaculture Act of 1980, it has become a highly globalized industry with US aquaculture valued at $1 billion out of the $70 billion worldwide.  Fueled by the continued exponential growth in the demand for seafood, aquaculture has come to encompass everything from the commercial fish farming most people are familiar with, to the research to vaccinate fish, improve feeding methods for cultivated sea life, and even raising seaweed for human consumption.

Salmon is one of the most popular seafoods in the United States and is regularly imported from countries including Chile and Norway. Image: Great Planers Trout & Salmon Club

The original regulatory act of the 1980s was meant to address the increased demand for seafood that was leading to unsustainable yields from wild stocks.  It also attempted to address the fact that in 1980, the US was already importing approximately 50% of all its seafood from outside sources.  However, despite increased research and improved technology over the last two decades worldwide, there is still a marginal commercial aquaculture industry in the US.  Part of this may be due to misinformation regarding the quality of imported seafood as well as the quality of fish coming from aquaculture in general.

Many arguments opposing aquaculture have already been debunked by scientific research just in the last 15-20 years, according to Dr. Paul Olin, an expert in aquaculture from the extension office of California Sea Grant that is affiliated with Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California.  One project in particular which is partially funded by Sea Grant and headed by Mark Drawbridge of the Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute (HSWRI) in San Diego, developed a fish feed that relies less on fishmeal, one of the arguments of farmed fish opponents.  They tested the feed on fish fingerlings from a hatchery in Carlsbad, CA also maintained by Hubbs-Sea World.  Their findings indicated that this new feed, developed using high quality poultry by-products and algae, did not hinder fish development and has the potential to be the answer to the feeding of fish proteins to such species as yellowtail tuna and sea bass.  If this feed could be mass produced and made for other species, including the highly prized Bluefin tuna, sustainability of such fish in a controlled environment could be a much more viable solution to the dwindling wild stocks.

Another aquaculture myth that has been debunked by research is in regards to the use of antibiotics to treat cultivated fish.  According to Dr. Olin, fish feeds used twenty years ago may have included antibiotics due to the lack of research and technology in the early years of aquaculture.  However, with research partially funded by cooperative public and private sector partnerships such as Sea Grant, vaccinations against fish diseases have resulted in a 97% drop in the use of antibiotics.

HSWRI has operated small surface cages using standard containment net technology in southern California as part of its white seabass enhancement program for over a decade with no escapement incidents.  HSWRI has also participated in demonstration projects in Northern Baja, CA, Mexico designed to promote the development of offshore aquaculture using regionally important species raised from egg to market.  These projects have used both standard surface cages and submersible cages with no escapement incidents.

View from inside a Hawaii offshore aquaculture cage with Moi swimming near the surface. Image: NOAA

Lastly, the argument regarding opening up the 200 nautical miles of ocean, which comprises the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), could turn the tide for fish farming in the US. Currently, most farms operate within state waters but opening up the EEZ could encourage larger commercial finfish cultivators to help reduce the gap between imported and local seafood.  One high-profile project in particular, spearheaded by Hubbs-Sea World suggested creating the first commercial-scale aquaculture farm off the coast of San Diego.  Unfortunately, with the release of the recent NOAA aquaculture draft policy, it was decided to table the project after two years of trying to get permit approval.  As the project demonstrated, the process of obtaining all the necessary permits is lengthy and can result in companies moving to Mexico’s waters instead where it only takes a few weeks to gain approval.

That is why it is crucial for NOAA and the Department of Commerce who have drafted complementary aquaculture policies to implement regulations that encourage commercial aquaculture industry in the US.  Having a regulatory system in place that makes it reasonable and affordable for a company to want to come in and develop within the EEZ is vital. There is significant scientific research that shows fish raised in aquaculture are no more harmful than fish caught in the wild. So long as organizations have the resources and support, research will continue to improve the industry as a whole.  This means that there should also be a greater movement to encourage public knowledge of this research to prevent misinformation. There are not only economic benefits of fewer imported seafood species but the notion of ocean sustainability and public trust that the products they are consuming are both safe to eat and beneficial for our environment.

— Alyssa Magat Crutchfield, Undergraduate Intern


** The views expressed in this article are purely personal and do not represent the Scripps Institution of Oceanography or the University of California San Diego. **

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