Why we need more aquaculture in our oceans

“Farming fish in the ocean provides climate-friendly protein with low greenhouse gas emissions and little to no conversion of land.”

Guest Commentary
By Sarah Brenholt

During this National Oceans Month, it’s a time to reflect on the fact that America has an opportunity to harness the vast resources of our ocean waters and create a robust aquaculture industry.

By putting in place the proper regulatory system to support offshore aquaculture, or fish farming in federal waters off the shore, Members of Congress would ensure the U.S. can reap the many benefits of an industry, particularly creating jobs and feeding our communities nationwide. 

When we look at the facts, it’s astonishing that the U.S. is not a leader in aquaculture production. Aquaculture is the fastest growing food production sector in the world, supplying half of the seafood consumed globally, but the U.S. ranks only 16th in aquaculture production behind countries such as China, Indonesia, India, Vietnam, Bangladesh, South Korea, Egypt, Norway and Japan. The annual output of the American aquaculture industry, valued at $1.5 billion, is only 0.6% of the $263 billion global aquaculture market. As a result of the seafood deficit, the U.S. imports up to 85% of the seafood we consume, mainly from Asia and Europe.

The lack of a clear and predictable policy framework for permitting offshore aquaculture hinders growth of an American industry because it deters investment in the U.S. Federal legislation is needed to establish policies that support growth of American aquaculture production and create a thriving U.S. aquaculture industry that can compete on the global stage.

Current legislation in Congress, which has bipartisan support in both the U.S. House and Senate, would establish National Standards for offshore aquaculture and clarify a regulatory system for the farming of fish in the U.S. exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

recent survey of likely voters, upon learning how the U.S. is missing significant opportunities with aquaculture, found that 89% of recipients would have more favorable views towards a Member of Congress if he or she were to support increased access to offshore aquaculture for American businesses.

The Echelon Insights poll of 1,020 voters, commissioned by Stronger America Through Seafood and conducted from May 20-23, 2022, also found that 86% think it’s important to support U.S. aquaculture when learning that the U.S imports most of its seafood from Asia and Europe and that China ranks first in aquaculture production.

Further, 84% of voters believe it is important to expand American seafood production after learning that many American companies build their offshore aquaculture operations in other countries — taking our technology, jobs, and revenue overseas. 87% of poll recipients stated that it’s important to expand American seafood production when learning that doubling U.S. aquaculture production could create 50,000 direct and indirect jobs.

Increased aquaculture production would create business opportunities throughout the seafood supply chain, including the hatcheries that rear the fish; the terrestrial farmers that grow the crops that can be used in fish feed; the feed suppliers that produce the feed; the seafood processing plants that process and package the seafood, and the local retail businesses, markets, and grocery stores that sell the fish. We would see job creation across the country from terrestrial farmers who would benefit from the new markets for crops established by increased aquaculture production to the fish farmers, to the staff in retail marketing and sales.

The environmental benefits of offshore water farming are also important to outline as the effects of climate change impact our natural food sources. In many states we are seeing dramatic changes in wild fish populations due to the extreme heat, causing shortages of wild-catch fish, which supply our stores and restaurants.

Aquaculture in U.S. waters would offer a way to supplement the nation’s seafood supply and complement the wild harvesting sector. 

The reality is today’s aquaculture industry is regenerative and sustainable. Farming fish in the ocean provides climate-friendly protein with low greenhouse gas emissions and little to no conversion of land. Marine aquaculture improves water quality, protects coastlines, and provides habitats for other species. Some types of marine aquaculture can even mitigate global warming by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. When the poll recipients learned it is a sustainable industry, 85% stated they support American aquaculture, and 86% say they support it when learning that aquaculture is a low impact way to feed a growing population. 

With the global population projected to reach 10 billion by 2050, and global demand for protein projected continues to increase, offshore aquaculture holds the key to a sustainable way to feed the world. Congress can and should act to make it happen. 

The author is Sarah Brenholt,( main image)  campaign manager of Stronger America Through Seafood, an industry coalition that advocates for federal policies for sustainable offshore aquaculture.