With over 125 years’ experience in supporting the nation’s fisheries, NOAA Fisheries shares some of the work it is doing to ensure aquaculture has a positive impact on environmental, social, economic development.
The United States boasts some of the largest and most sustainable fisheries in the world. Regulated by a number of federal, state, and local laws, seafood production in the US plays a vital role in supporting economic growth as well as providing opportunities for innovation to ensure the industry develops with minimal impact on the environment. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is a federal agency which oversees the development and implementation of policies and provides vital services that support sustainable seafood production, conservation and healthy ecosystems.
Lorna Malkin, Junior Editor of Innovation News Network speaks to the team at NOAA Fisheries to find out more about some of the latest research and initiatives including developments in aquaculture feeds technology and their work to reduce user space conflicts through Aquaculture Opportunity Areas (AOAs).
To begin, can you give me an overview of the work and role of NOAA Fisheries?
NOAA Fisheries is responsible for the stewardship of the nation’s ocean living resources and their habitat. We provide vital services for the nation: productive and sustainable fisheries, safe sources of seafood, the recovery and conservation of protected resources, and healthy ecosystems—all backed by sound science and an ecosystem-based approach to management. Fostering sustainable marine aquaculture is part of the agency’s strategy for both economic and environmental resilience in coastal communities. Seafood farming, if done responsibly—as it is in the US— supports a healthy economy, a healthy planet, and healthy people.
NOAA Fisheries’ aquaculture efforts focus on several distinct priority areas including regulation and policy, science, outreach and education, and international activities. We support cutting-edge science as well as federal policy making and regulation to grow sustainable marine aquaculture in the United States and expand its social, economic, and environmental benefits. Fisheries also conducts much of NOAA’s in-house aquaculture research, with activities at six regional science centres. Research and development efforts focus on providing science information for management by addressing a number of topics including the culture of specific species, alternative feeds, and animal health, as well as habitat benefits and potential impacts.
How long has NOAA worked in fostering and understanding aquaculture?
NOAA Fisheries and its predecessor agencies have been involved in aquaculture for more than 125 years. We pioneered fish culture methods and stock enhancement techniques to replenish wild stocks. Many culture, hatching, and rearing techniques currently used by the industry worldwide were developed in NOAA labs. That includes our Milford Connecticut lab for molluscs; the Manchester Washington lab for salmon; and the Galveston Texas lab for shrimp. Marine aquaculture is an important part of the agency’s strategy for building economic and environmental resiliency in coastal communities and supporting healthy oceans.
What is the value of US aquaculture?
In 2017, US aquaculture producers raised 32 million pounds of salmon, 36 million pounds of oysters, and nine million pounds of clams along the nation’s coast. In total, farm-raised seafood accounted for 21% of the US seafood production by value in 2017. In many fishing and coastal communities around the nation, aquaculture is creating important economic opportunities and year-round employment.
What are some of the biggest changes you have seen in US aquaculture over the last decade?
Marine aquaculture feeds technology and attitudes toward the industry have been two of the biggest changes over the last decade. Research and development of new feed ingredients have dramatically reduced the amount of fish meal required to feed farmed fish therefore improving the industry’s overall efficiency and reducing its environmental impact. On the public perception side, there is a growing awareness of how farmed seafood is a climate-smart form of agriculture. For example, farmed fish and shellfish produce far fewer greenhouse gasses per unit of food compared to other protein production sources. While challenges still remain across the aquaculture industry, these and other positive changes contribute to a growing sense of urgency and optimism around aquaculture and its potential to help sustainably meet the global demand for seafood while also providing economic and climate resilience opportunities.
How are sustainability standards regulated in the US in order to ensure seafood is harvested responsibly?
US marine aquaculture operates within one of the most comprehensive regulatory frameworks in the world. For operations in federal waters, existing regulations govern a multitude of potential environmental impacts including siting of farms, seafood safety, feed ingredients, consistency with state laws, the protection of marine mammals, fish habitat, and threatened and endangered species, disease management, water discharge, and use of medications. Some statutes that apply to aquaculture projects include the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.
Looking at aquaculture on a global scale, what do you think are some of the most worrying issues facing the industry today? How are these being addressed?
The changing climate and oceans will have significant impacts on global ecosystems and the many people, communities, and economies that depend upon seafood. Aquaculture will face some of the same challenges as wild capture fisheries as ocean acidification and warming waters impact marine life. While not immune to the effects of climate change, ocean-based farming operations can reduce resource pressure and present novel resilience opportunities for a changing environment.
Furthermore, technological developments in aquaculture can create opportunities to help stay ahead of changes in temperature and pH. Researchers and farmers are examining how strict controls and safety measures taken at hatcheries—such as buffering of acidified seawater—allow for a greater survival rate of juvenile shellfish and finfish during their most vulnerable stage of development. In addition, advancements in selective breeding programs for farmed species (e.g., shellfish genetic lines that are resistant to the impacts of ocean acidification) may help address these challenges.
Aquatic crops like shellfish and seaweed provide important ecosystem services, including water filtration and the reduction of ocean acidification effects around farm sites. Aquaculture farms can also provide habitat for fish and crustaceans, increasing an area’s biodiversity, and benefiting wild populations. NOAA scientists are currently studying the nitrogen removal that shellfish aquaculture can provide to coastal communities and seaweed’s potential to decrease carbonic acid, the main perpetrator of ocean acidification. See the NOAA Aquaculture supports the United Nations’ sustainability goals webpage for more information.
When it comes to supply and demand, what do you feel will be the biggest challenges in scaling up production in order to meet the increasing demand for seafood?
In the US, one of the greatest challenges facing marine aquaculture development is the complexity and uncertainty of permitting. The US is a world leader in setting and enforcing environmental laws and we have a framework of regulations that help ensure sustainability of our industries. However, various agencies are involved in permitting, which can create inefficiencies if not well co-ordinated. NOAA has been working with our partner agencies to increase permit efficiency that can offer potential growers a more defined path toward getting farms in the water. Increasing the efficiency of permitting new sustainable farms could jumpstart domestic aquaculture production.
Can you explain some of the environmental and social benefits of aquaculture?
Aquaculture can increase food production, provide climate-smart environmental benefit, and create economic opportunities in coastal areas. Some aquatic crops like shellfish and seaweed provide important ecosystem services including water filtration and the reduction of ocean acidification effects around farm sites. Aquaculture farms can also provide habitat for fish and crustaceans, increasing an area’s biodiversity and benefiting wild populations. See NOAA’s ecosystem services fact sheet for more information.
Social benefits of marine aquaculture include the diversification of US seafood production that can expand and stabilise US seafood supply in the face of environmental change and economic uncertainty. Aquaculture supports American jobs throughout the seafood supply chain. These jobs tend to be year-round, living-wage jobs centred in coastal and rural communities. Marine aquaculture operations support working waterfronts and the same infrastructure used by capture fisheries such as docks, boat yards, and processing plants. Aquaculture and seafood also uniquely benefit society and community health by providing an affordable and available source of long chain, omega 3 fatty acids that are only found in seafood.
When we look at the future of our food systems in the United States, we have to consider a growing population, a changing climate, and increasing strain on our natural resources. It is no secret that the global human population is rising, but the global abundance of wild fish is not. NOAA Fisheries and its partners have made good progress in ending overfishing in the United States, but wild-fish harvests cannot meet current seafood demands. Aquaculture already provides more than half of the world’s seafood and will continue to play a vital role in sustainably increasing the global seafood supply.
In terms of innovation in aquaculture, do you think there is enough research and development taking place?
Aquaculture is the fastest growing form of food production in the world and more industry, government, and academia research is needed for the industry to reach its full potential. There is a wide range of aquaculture research investments around the world, and NOAA’s aquaculture research capacity is limited compared to some nations. We therefore rely on partnerships – both domestically and internationally – to maximise our impact. Currently, the agency is working to address the technical and scientific barriers of marine aquaculture and to provide science information for management in a number of ways, including through in-house research at NOAA labs, grants and cooperative agreements with academia and industry partners, and by co-ordinating research with NOAA Sea Grant, the US Department of Agriculture, and other federal agencies.
Can you explain any recent technological developments that are being used to support the aquaculture industry?
One of the greatest success stories is in fish feeds and deals with decoupling aquaculture from the harvest of wild fish used for fish meal and fish oil. NOAA and USDA joined forces a decade ago to outline a strategy to wean the industry off of fish meal and fish oil from directed wild-capture fisheries. We are now seeing the fruits of that labour with numerous new aquafeed ingredients including algae, canola, insects, soy, yeast, and much more. Also, the amount of fish meal and oil still being used for feeds is increasingly supplied by using the trimmings from fish being processed for human consumption and not from directed harvest of forage fish. This development has enhanced the connection of the coast to the heartland with farmers benefiting from direct crop sales and new businesses turning crop waste into algae and insects for aquaculture feeds.
NOAA recently started work on Aquaculture Opportunity Areas, what is an Aquaculture Opportunity Area (AOA)?
An AOA is a small, defined geographic area that has been evaluated to determine its potential suitability for commercial aquaculture. Moving forward, NOAA will use a combination of scientific analysis and public engagement to identify areas within the AOA that are environmentally, socially, and economically appropriate for commercial aquaculture.
Why is NOAA identifying Aquaculture Opportunity Areas?
NOAA has directives to preserve ocean sustainability and facilitate domestic aquaculture in the US through the National Aquaculture Act of 1980, the NOAA Marine Aquaculture Policy, and Executive Order 13921, ‘Promoting American Seafood Competitiveness and Economic Growth’. NOAA has a variety of proven science-based tools and strategies that can support these directives and help communities thoughtfully consider how and where to sustainably develop offshore aquaculture that will complement wild capture fisheries, working waterfronts, and our nation’s seafood processing and distribution infrastructure.
Identifying AOAs is an opportunity to use best available global science-based guidance on sustainable aquaculture management and support the ‘triple bottom line’ of environmental, economic, and social sustainability. This approach has been refined and utilised widely within states and by other countries with robust, sustainable aquaculture sectors.
Considering NOAA-trust resources and stakeholder uses of a defined area will help to encourage the sustainable growth of aquaculture by siting aquaculture farms in ways that minimise impacts to those natural resources and reduce user conflicts while maximising public input in the AOA identification process.
How will NOAA identify locations for AOAs?
There are two parts to identifying AOAs, as described in the Executive Order:
- Identifying ‘geographic areas containing locations suitable for commercial aquaculture’; and
- Completing a programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) to assess the impact of siting aquaculture facilities in each area within two years.
To identify the geographic areas, NOAA will use a combination of spatial mapping approaches, scientific review, and stakeholder input. The National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science will use the best available data to account for key environmental, economic, social, and cultural considerations (i.e. fishing and protected areas) to identify areas that may support sustainable aquaculture development. NOAA will then combine those results with input from Fishery Management Councils, Marine Fisheries Commissions, states and tribes, and the general public and to identify the geographic area to be considered in more depth. Public and stakeholder input will include a public comment period and close coordination with regional and national stakeholders.
After the geographic areas are identified, the environmental and related social and economic effects of siting aquaculture facilities will be considered through the preparation of a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement.
What is the purpose of the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS)?
Each PEIS will analyse alternative scenarios for siting aquaculture within the geographic areas identified through this process and will present the best available science on the potential effects of commercial aquaculture within the areas. This will include information regarding applicable federal environmental laws (e.g., Endangered Species Act (ESA), essential fish habitat (EFH) under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the National Marine Sanctuaries Act). As part of the NEPA process, NOAA will encourage continued dialogue through public comment and outreach and inter-agency communication. Intra and interagency communication will include determinations regarding how best to meet consultation requirements under statutes including ESA and EFH.
The process to identify AOAs is independent of specific proposals for aquaculture operations within an AOA. Each PEIS will include information to inform future permitting and environmental consultations for aquaculture operations that are proposed within an AOA.
This will create permitting efficiencies by reducing the need for duplicative efforts by federal and state agencies but will not replace the need for farms to apply for appropriate permits.
Would permits be required for aquaculture operations proposed within an AOA?
Yes. The federal and state permitting and authorisation requirements are the same within AOAs as anywhere else. Aquaculture operations proposed within an AOA would be required to comply with all applicable federal and state laws and regulations (e.g., Clean Water Act, Rivers and Harbors Act, Endangered Species Act (ESA), essential fish habitat (EFH) under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), National Marine Sanctuaries Act (NMSA)). Compliance may include ESA and EFH consultations, and MMPA authorisations. Site-specific environmental surveys may also be required.
Can aquaculture operations be sited outside of AOAs?
Yes. Aquaculture operations can be proposed outside of AOAs, but they would not benefit from the scientific analysis or public engagement that went into identifying locations and completing a PEIS for the AOAs. Proposing aquaculture operations outside of AOAs may result in additional time and effort on the part of the applicant.
How large will an AOA be and how will the size be determined?
There is no predetermined size for an AOA. Each of the first two AOAs may accommodate approximately three to five commercial aquaculture operations, but this will vary depending on the specifics of the location. Operations could vary in size, configuration, and species cultivated (e.g., finfish, shellfish, seaweed, and/or integrated multi-trophic aquaculture).
The size and shape of each AOA will be determined as part of the AOA identification process. During this process, NOAA will work with federal and state partners, tribes, and interested stakeholders to determine the appropriate size of each AOA. This will include using the best available science to consider aspects such as the types of species likely to be cultivated in the AOA, maximum number and configuration of operations within an area, maximum annual farm production based on carrying capacity modelling, and monitoring considerations. The size of AOAs may differ based on oceanographic conditions, other uses (e.g., fishing), and potential impacts to protected species, essential fish habitat and marine protected areas, among other considerations.
Will all AOAs be in federal waters?
AOAs could be identified in federal or state waters, or a combination of the two. The EO does not require that AOAs be located in federal waters. If states express interest in AOAs in state waters, that will be taken into consideration. The first two AOAs are expected to be in federal waters.
Does identification of an AOA mean that other uses will be prohibited?
No. The identification of AOAs would not prohibit other legal activities from occurring. Information received throughout the process of identifying areas and completing a PEIS for each AOA will help maximise compatibility of AOAs with other ocean uses.
How will AOAs ensure sustainable aquaculture?
As aquaculture operations are proposed within each AOA, they will be subject to federal and state permitting and authorisation processes, which may include project-specific requirements such as monitoring, reporting, and coastal zone consistency. Operations within each AOA would be separated by some amount of physical distance based upon results of modelling (e.g., for carrying capacity). Other analyses and efforts would be made to further minimise potential impacts while maximising sustainable aquaculture production. Monitoring required as part of existing regulatory requirements for aquaculture operations (e.g., Clean Water Act permits) will also provide data that can be used to inform sustainable management.
Identifying AOAs is an opportunity for proactive stewardship to use best available global science-based guidance on sustainable aquaculture management and support the ‘triple bottom line’ of environmental, economic, and social sustainability. This approach has been refined and utilised widely within states and by other countries with robust, sustainable aquaculture sectors.
Considering NOAA-trust resources and stakeholder uses of a defined area will help encourage the sustainable growth of aquaculture by siting aquaculture farms in ways that minimise impacts to those natural resources and reduce user conflicts while maximising public input in the AOA identification process.
Please note, this article will also appear in the sixth edition of our quarterly publication.