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Seabass aquaculture farm, photo courtesy of iStock
EPA Permit for Experimental Ocean Fish Farm Sparks Environmental and Economic Debate
Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) granted a permit to an experimental ocean fish farm in the Gulf of Mexico on the very same day that dozens of fishers, environmentalists, and community members held a hearing to voice concerns [[link removed]] about the project.
The Velella Epsilon project [[link removed]] is the latest flashpoint in a much larger debate about opening federal waters to offshore fish farms, which a recent executive order [[link removed]] and Senate bill [[link removed]] aim to do. Proponents argue that the U.S. needs more domestic seafood production and that raising fish farther offshore can solve the problems associated with coastal fish farms. Opponents say that offshore aquaculture poses too many unknowns and environmental risks, with profits likely accruing to larger businesses at small fishers’ expense.
As overfishing threatens to deplete wild fish stocks [[link removed]], experts increasingly look to farm-raised fish to fill global demand [[link removed]] for seafood. Aquaculture has been the fastest growing [[link removed]] form of food production in the world, and 2014 marked the first time [[link removed]] that more of the world’s fish came from aquaculture than from wild harvests.
Aquaculture represented 20% of U.S. seafood production in 2017. Proponents want to expand the industry to produce more seafood domestically. Americans largely consume imported seafood, but because the U.S. also exports 80% of its wild catch, it is hard to know how much domestic product comes back as processed imports. One study estimated that 35% [[link removed]] of seafood consumed in the U.S. was caught or raised here.
The U.S. aquaculture industry currently consists of indoor recirculating fish tanks, seaweed or shellfish cultures, and floating fish pens in coastal state waters. Of these methods, raising fish in ocean pens is by far the most controversial – Washington state and Alaska have restricted [[link removed]] or fully banned [[link removed]] finfish farming in state waters, primarily to protect their wild fisheries. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also campaigned on a pledge [[link removed]] to phase out finfish net pens in British Columbia by 2025. But proponents argue that allowing ocean fish farms in deeper federal waters can resolve historic issues with the practice.
Deeper Waters, Diffuse Waste
Large ocean fish farms introduce massive amounts of waste into the water. Excess concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus [[link removed]] from fish poop can feed oxygen-sucking algae blooms, which are a particular concern for coastal communities around the Gulf, where recent red tide events [[link removed]] fouled beaches and killed marine life. “Adding nitrogen and phosphate to our warm Gulf waters is too risky and dangerous, even on a trial basis,” said Jen Ahearn-Koch, the mayor of Sarasota, at recent hearing discussing the Velella project.
However, the EPA determined that [[link removed]] the Velella Epsilon farm “will not cause a significant impact on the environment.” The farm would raise 20,000 almaco jack (also known as kampachi or longfin yellowtail) 45 miles off the coast of Sarasota, Florida [[link removed]:\Users\micha\OneDrive\Desktop\Documents\OMI\articles%20for%20editing\Sarasota,%20Florida%20https:\oceanservice.noaa.gov\facts\eez.html], producing up to 80,000 pounds [[link removed]] of fish. That is roughly 1% the size of a commercial offshore fish farm, according to Neil Sims, the CEO of Ocean Era, which is behind the project.
“The project hopes to demonstrate to the Florida fishing and boating community that offshore aquaculture – when done properly – will be something that they can embrace,” Sims says.
Given the lower fish density and, most critically, the offshore location of the farm, the EPA determined that deeper waters and faster currents significantly decrease concentrations of fish waste in the waters around the facility.
Initial research supports these findings [[link removed]], but experts say that offshore aquaculture is still a new and understudied industry. “We’re waiting on there to be more research, and it needs to be more specific to these regions,” says Liz Nussbaumer, project director for Seafood, Public Health & Food Systems at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. “They each face different diseases pressures, environmental challenges. … For the Gulf, we don’t know enough to make a super educated statement.”
In addition to fish waste, offshore aquaculture introduces fish feed, antibiotics [[link removed]], and other medicines into the ocean. “This effluent is not normal fish waste,” says Hallie Templeton, senior oceans campaigner for Friends of the Earth. “There’s a slew of other chemicals that these farms use domestically and abroad.”
For Velella and future Ocean Era farms, Sims says, “our priority would be to rely on good animal welfare standards, good siting, and good nutrition to optimize animal health and reduce reliance on therapeutants.” EPA’s permit does allow Ocean Era to use antibiotics and medicines but said [[link removed]] they “will not likely be used.” The sight will also routinely test waters for effluents.
Gulf shrimping boat, photo courtesy of iStock
Friend or Foe to Fishing Communities?
Some fishing communities fear that ocean fish farms will harm wild fisheries and displace small- to midsized fishers.
Washington, Alaska, and British Columbia have all made moves to restrict or ban finfish farming for fear that farmed fish will spread disease to their wild salmon fisheries or, worse yet, will escape and forever alter the wild gene pool. In 2017, as many as 263,000 farmed Atlantic salmon [[link removed]] escaped from a Cooke Aquaculture farm in Puget Sound, potentially breeding and competing with native Pacific salmon, which tribal communities [[link removed]] especially rely on.
Escapes are a particular concern in the Gulf, where frequent storms and hurricanes could disturb cages. However, Sims says Ocean Era uses new, stronger cages that can lower into the ocean to ride out storms, something not common in coastal fish farms. The farm will also raise native fish from local brood stock, so potential escapes would not introduce novel competitors or foreign genes.
Sims says that aquaculture can benefit fishing communities, pointing to Ocean Era’s farms in Hawaii, which draw in wild tuna, mahimahi, and other fish for recreational and commercial anglers to catch near the pens. “The local fishing community in Kona loves our offshore aquaculture pens,” says Sims. “You know where to go to get the fish – it’s like an oasis in the desert.”
However, fishers at a recent hearing [[link removed]] and organizations representing fishing communities say they are concerned about the larger threat that aquaculture poses to their livelihoods. “Offshore aquaculture is framed as a way of boosting the domestic seafood industry, which is quite misleading, because it will hurt and displace fishermen more than anything,” says Rosanna Marie Neil, policy counsel for Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, which represents small- to midsized fishers. “It will flood the U.S. with these farmed fish that are not going to be the same quality as wild caught fish.” Neil says aquaculture has not yet relieved the pressure on wild fisheries [[link removed]], but rather has increased the overall supply of seafood and, in some cases, collapsed wild fish prices [[link removed]].
Neil also worries that capital-intensive large-scale offshore aquaculture will spell more corporate control in a consolidating fishing industry. “The seafood system already heavily favors the industrial fleets and the big corporate entities,” Neil says. “You’ll potentially have these corporate entities that are controlling both wild caught seafood and farmed seafood.” While the industry is still nascent, there are already large, vertically integrated multinational corporate leaders in aquaculture, such as Cooke Aquaculture and Norway’s Mowi.
Fast-Tracking Future Fish Farms
The Velella Epsilon project is not a massive facility, but it could open the way for one. A recent executive order [[link removed]] by President Trump seeks to “remove unnecessary regulatory burdens” to grow U.S. aquaculture, including limiting environmental review and authorization of aquaculture facilities to two years.
“This is meant to be a precedent-setting decision and operation to open the door to putting more facilities in the Gulf,” says Templeton. “If the federal government is hoping to place finfish aquaculture facilities in open waters, the way to do it is not through a streamlined permitting system, it is not through a rushed two-year environmental rushed review.”
Sims said that Ocean Era will apply for a larger commercial project in the Gulf, but the company has not decided on its scale nor which fish it would cultivate.
As it stands, no single agency oversees offshore aquaculture regulation, and new facilities need permits from several agencies for different aspects of their business. A judge recently determined [[link removed]] that the agency overseeing wild fisheries, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), does not have authority to issue permits for ocean aquaculture or to set new rules for the industry. But a recently introduced Senate bill [[link removed]] would change that and put NOAA in charge of creating new aquaculture regulations and coordinating the federal permitting process with other relevant agencies.
Sims supports this legislation, as does the coalition Stronger America Through Seafood [[link removed]] whose members include employees of aquaculture corporations, fish feed makers such as Cargill [[link removed]], and seafood sellers Red Lobster and Sysco.
On the other hand, Templeton and members of the Don’t Cage Our Oceans [[link removed]] coalition, which includes environmental organizations, groups of small fish producers, and the Indigenous Environmental Network, oppose the bill. Several of these groups support land-based recirculating tanks – which can filter fish waste into compost or use it to grow plants – as a farmed fish alternative that does not rely on the ocean. Neil and Templeton also encouraged investments in domestic processing and smaller fishers with ecosystems-based management [[link removed]].
Ultimately, the offshore aquaculture debate poses fundamental questions about how the U.S. can sustainably meet seafood demand and about who will manage and profit from its production. Policy and technology could enable a future of environmentally sound, commercial scale, community- or worker-owned aquaculture facilities on land and sea. However, with agribusiness giants lobbying for the industry [[link removed]], aquaculture could mirror industrial livestock production, in that a few corporations may profit at the expense of coastal communities and the environment.
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Last week, a federal judge said that ranchers had not provided enough information [[link removed]] to support their allegations that top beef packing companies had conspired together to manipulate markets [[link removed]] and suppress cattle prices. Specifically, the judge asked for more information about two confidential witnesses who spoke up about the supposed scheme. Ranchers have 90 days to strengthen their case.A group of 115 Northeastern dairy farmers also recently settled [[link removed]] a major antitrust case [[link removed]] against dominant cooperative Dairy Farmers of America [[link removed]] (DFA) the night before trial. DFA said the cost of further litigation during the pandemic outweighed the cost of settling. Settlement terms are not yet public.
What We're Reading
Meatpackers have denied workers’ compensation claims for plant workers and their families affected by COVID-19. ( Reuters [[link removed]]) The USDA cancelled a regular Farm Labor Survey that determines minimum wages for agricultural guest workers on H-2A visas. This could drive substantial wage cuts for all U.S. farmworkers. ( Press Release – Farmworker Justice [[link removed]])There are half as many dairy farms today as there were in 2003, according to an analysis of USDA data. ( Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting [[link removed]]) About the Open Markets Institute
The Open Markets Institute promotes political, industrial, economic, and environmental resilience. We do so by documenting and clarifying the dangers of extreme consolidation, and by fostering discussions of ways to reestablish America’s political economy on a more stable and fair foundation.
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