As offshore aquaculture becomes a more viable enterprise globally, a variety of regulatory approaches have emerged that reflect conflicting perspectives of the sector as either an economic opportunity or an environmental threat.

The governments of Canada and Denmark have both taken aggressive actions to curtail offshore aquaculture, with Denmark banning any new projects as of December 2020 and Canada adopting increasingly restrictive policies on net-pen aquaculture.

In both countries, government officials have expressed concern about the environmental impact of offshore aquaculture.

“We’re very concerned as a government about protecting wild salmon and the migratory routes that they use and we’re very interested in moving to closed containment where feasible,” Doug Donaldson, then-minister of forest, land and natural resource operations, and rural development in British Columbia, Canada, said in 2018, as the government first brought up the idea of moving its net-pen fish farms onshore.

In 2019, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau backed those efforts, saying his government would “work with the province of British Columbia and Indigenous communities to create a responsible plan to transition from open net-pen salmon farming in coastal British Columbia waters by 2025.”

In December 2020, Fisheries and Oceans Canada announced on 17 December it plans to phase out all existing salmon farming facilities in the Discovery Islands – located in British Columbia – with the upcoming 18-month period being the last time the area can be licensed.

Such efforts have not yet spread to other parts of Canada, but some North American environmental non-governmental organizations, such as Oceana and the anti-aquaculture group Don’t Cage Our Oceans, have pushed for greater caution across the continent in regard to offshore aquaculture.

“Offshore fish farms unnaturally attract large predators like sharks and seabirds, which changes their natural behaviors and are often killed to protect the farmed fish or human safety,” Geoff Shester, a California-based senior scientist at Oceana, told SeafoodSource. “While proponents of farmed fish argue that offshore net pens are needed to increase global food supply and food security, the simple biological fact is that farmed fish eat more than they grow, so are inherently a global sink on food supply.”

Shester cited “The future of food from the sea,” a scientific article published in August 2020 in Nature magazine, which found “economically rational” improvements in policy overseeing wild stocks could create more gains in seafood production than expansion of aquaculture. The article suggests that better management of wild fishery stocks – which account for 80 percent of the seafood taken from the seas – would increase the long-term marine (wild, farmed) fishery yields more efficiently than an increase in mariculture efforts without “ambitious technical innovation” in feed inputs needed to replace feed based on fishmeal.

U.S. attempts to permit offshore aquaculture – accelerated under the presidency of Donald Trump –  have united conservation groups and near-shore fishing bodies in opposition. Those groups have teamed up to file lawsuits against project proposals and won a decision in August 2020 that struck down a plan to open the Gulf of Mexico’s federal waters to fish farming.

In part because the industry is in its infancy, academic literature on the environmental impacts of offshore aquaculture is limited. But Hallie Templeton, the senior oceans campaigner and deputy legal director at environmental NGO Friends of the Earth, lists several “significant risks which cannot simply be avoided or mitigated by national standards or operating guidelines.

“Fish will escape, weakening the genetics of local wild stocks. Fish waste and residues from feed and pharmaceuticals as well as metals and antifoulants will leech into the waterway,” she told SeafoodSource.

Templeton is part of Don’t Cage Our Oceans, a coalition of NGOs pushing the U.S. Commerce Department to use NOAA to protect independent fishing and tourism by rejecting “attempts to industrialize the oceans.” Other members include small-scale fishing companies and aquaculture firms operating land-based recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) operations.

With offshore aquaculture becoming a more feasible economic proposition, the conflict between industrial and environmental interests over the practice is likely to intensify, according to Sally Yozell, director of the environmental security program at the Stimson Center. Yozell said the U.S. can increase its sustainable offshore mariculture operations through better regulation. Offshore mariculture remains limited in U.S. waters by a “lack of government-wide leadership on the issue and a complicated regulatory and permitting regime, which tries to balance state and federal laws, and the myriad of rules, regulations, and oversight by different federal agencies,” Yozell said.

“To be successful, the permitting agencies should appoint one lead agency such as NOAA, and the other agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture should all come together to develop one sustainable program,” Yozell told SeafoodSource.

Yozell said a licensing regime as outline above “will ease the uncertainty of the private sector and investors and help move responsible aquaculture and mariculture forward so that the United States can compete with other nations across the globe.”

Yozell praised the “triple bottom-line” of “environmental, economic, and social sustainability” guiding NOAA’s efforts, and said a similar approach should guide the creation of global regulations governing aquaculture and mariculture, which she suggested be coordinated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, with input from regional fishery management organizations, non-governmental organizations, and industry.

The European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) also have existing regulatory structures concerning offshore aquaculture that could be used as a reference by the FAO, Yozell said.

A spokesperson from the European Commission’s Directorate-General of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries told SeafoodSource that “the E.U. has a strong environmental legislation in place which covers mariculture.”

“Every mariculture project has to go through a thorough environmental impact assessment before starting its activities. There are also specific provisions on invasive alien species, feed, and hygiene that are related to the potential environmental impacts of mariculture,” the spokesperson said, referencing rules laid out in several E.U. directives, including the Marine Strategy Framework Directive and the Maritime Spatial Planning Directive, which both have provisions on mariculture.  

The ASEAN approach is centered around its Good Aquaculture Practices (ASEAN GAqP) protocol. But Jose Domingos, a senior research fellow in applied breeding and genetics at James Cook University in Singapore, said it is not an effective regulatory framework for offshore aquaculture.

Domingos said there hasn’t been the need to for its development in the region, as there hasn’t been same kind of offshore mariculture project development activity currently underway elsewhere.

“Southeast Asian waters would be too warm and costs offshore are too expensive,” he told SeafoodSource, adding that urban sewage runoff and other pollution are also factors impeding the sector’s expansion in Southeast Asia.

ASEAN neighbor China has emerged recent hotbed of offshore fish-farming, with several major state-owned companies recently entering the sector in conjunction with governmental subsidies aimed at local economic development .

According to Songlin Wang, a marine scientist and lead strategist for China and Southeast Asia at the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, while environmental concerns are one factor cited by China’s government for its support of the burgeoning industry, the country lacks any kind of regulatory framework guiding its expansion.

“One of the main incentives is to reallocate coastal or inshore aquaculture capacity for environmental concerns; another is to explore the much larger carrying capacity in the much vast and deeper offshore waters,” Wang said. “Since most of the large-scale offshore aquaculture facilities are less than three years old and are still in exploratory stages, I don’t think there are any specific standards guiding off-coast or offshore aquaculture yet. Environmental impact assessments for these early pilots were very loose, nor have any cost-benefit assessments been published.”

China’s approach has emphasized the economic potential of offshore mariculture, and has focused on salmon, yellow croaker, and grouper species. That focus on carnivorous species – out of the price range of lower-income consumers – will likely continue, by virtue of the construction costs of offshore projects, according to a separate Nature article published 17 March, 2021, entitled, “Enabling conditions for an equitable and sustainable blue economy.”

The paper calls for a “Blue Growth” discourse as a sustainability-compatible solution to food security challenges that can be partially solved by an expansion into offshore aquaculture, with the authors writing the opportunity to create a top-down strategy is ripe, as the sector is still in its infancy.

Photo courtesy of Bartkowski/Shutterstock

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