A closer look at the US's draft national strategy on aquaculture

Join WeAreAquaculture as we dive into the draft Strategic Plan for Aquaculture Economic Development, which is out for public consultation until April 5: what do the U.S. federal agencies have in mind?
Pictured: Wellfleet Massachusetts Oyster Farm.

Pictured: Wellfleet Massachusetts Oyster Farm.

Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Adriane Michaelis.

Aquaculture has changed significantly over the past forty years, but as many a seafood farmer will tell you, governments don't always keep up with the pace of change in terms of strategy and regulation.

That's a situation the U.S. is now seeking to remedy, as it revisits its federal approach to aquaculture through a comprehensive planning update.

As WeAreAquaculture recently reported, the U.S. is currently updating its National Aquaculture Development Plan (NADP) - a long-overdue revamp of a federal strategy that has not been significantly revised since its creation in 1983.

Two main pillars of the NADP have already been finalized following public consultation in 2022, focusing on research and regulation respectively - but the third and final strategic component, on economic development, is now out for public comment, together with the draft overview of the entire NADP.

But what are the main points under consideration, and how could the updated NADP impact the future development of aquaculture in the U.S.?

WeAreAquaculture takes a closer look at the draft Strategic Plan for Aquaculture Economic Development to find out what the U.S. government agency strategists have in mind.

Four key goals to boost the US aquaculture industry

The plan aims to boost and expand the US aquaculture sector by both supporting already-existing activities and by attracting new entrants to the sector - and aims to encompass different facets of the seafood supply chain and a variety of production techniques.

All this boils down to four key objectives:

  1. stimulating investment in the industry

  2. strengthening infrastructure and the workforce

  3. increasing market opportunities for U.S. aquaculture products at home and abroad.

  4. improving communication and public understanding of aquaculture.

These objectives are slated for action over a period of five years, and will require cooperation among various governmental and non-governmental parties.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Pictured: Seaweed farmers harvesting kelp,&nbsp; Seagrove Kelp Co. farm in Doyle Bay, Alaska. </p></div>

Pictured: Seaweed farmers harvesting kelp,  Seagrove Kelp Co. farm in Doyle Bay, Alaska.

Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Jordan Hollarsmith

Goal 1: Encourage industry investment

This first goal, aiming to boost investment in US aquaculture, revolves around three main issues faced by aquaculture businesses: securing permits, accessing capital, and handling of risk management.

Overcoming complicated and uncertain permitting processes

The Plan acknowledges that "complicated, lengthy and uncertain regulatory processes" form one of the main barriers to investment for aquaculture industry participants - particularly so for smaller businesses.

How can this be tackled? Essentially, the Plan calls for better coordination and collaboration between federal agencies, at both the national and regional level, including developing a national aquatic health management approach, and coordinating groups and processes to streamline permitting and authorizations. The Plan also calls for more Aquaculture Opportunity Areas in state and federal marine waters to be identified.

Increasing access to capital - and recognising "natural capital"

It perhaps goes without saying that securing capital is key to launching an aquaculture operation - and is also key in supporting business growth and development across the entire supply chain. The Plan notes that access to capital is particularly challenging in communities that are traditionally underserved or under-represented, which it says is "an overlooked opportunity for novel, place-based aquaculture investment initiatives".

While NOAA Fisheries has already published a guide on federal funding available to aquaculture businesses, the Plan calls for agencies to build better awareness of funding opportunities and programs amongst stakeholder communities such as tribal groups, fishing and rural communities.

It also calls for agencies to provide business planning services and micro start-up financing to support new entrants, and to organise investor pitch sessions, business incubation and accelerators to help boost aquaculture startups and raise awareness among investors.

The Plan also looks at "natural capital" associated with aquaculture, and calls for agencies to research how to quantify the ecosystem services generated through aquaculture, such as improved water quality, biodiversity or reef regeneration around shellfish farms. Amongst the listed actions, the Plan says federal agencies will explore how tax credit programs could provide working capital to encourage investment in this area.

The availability of reliable and timely economic data on aquaculture costs, revenue, production, and trade is vital in supporting the economic development of the U.S. aquaculture industry.

Improving risk management and industry data

As we have seen over the past year, aquaculture operators are subject to significant risk from adverse weather and natural disasters in much the same way as other agricultural producers in the US - and the Plan calls for federal agencies to work together to "expand accessibilty" for seafood farmers to receive federal disaster relief. The agencies also plan to improve outreach to the sector to support better risk assessment and risk management strategies, including enabling better access to risk management tools.

A related objective is to improve market and economic data specifically for the aquaculture sector - information that is already widely available for other types of agriculture.

"The availability of reliable and timely economic data on aquaculture costs, revenue, production, and trade is vital in supporting the economic development of the U.S. aquaculture industry," the Plan states.

Better data can help to support investment by providing more certainty regarding return on investment, modeling market development and supporting strategic decision-making for operators and investors alike.

In support of this, agencies are to harmonize federal and state aquaculture data collection on economically-important species, and will aim to increase participation in data collection activities such as the Census of Aquaculture - plus expanding data and reports to take account of shellfish aquaculture, among other areas. Efforts also need to be made to distinguish aquaculture output from that of wild fisheries, the Plan highlights.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Pictured: Oyster aquaculturists from Cranberry Oysters, Great Cranberry Island, ME.</p></div>

Pictured: Oyster aquaculturists from Cranberry Oysters, Great Cranberry Island, ME.

Photo: Joseph Conroy III for the Maine Aquaculture Association.

Goal 2: Support US aquaculture infrastructure and workforce development

The second "pillar" of the National Plan focuses on four key strategic aims: fostering a well-trained workforce, encouraging technological innovation, increasing investment in infrastructure, and establishing research consortia to support sustainable and competitive growth.

A skilled and diverse aquaculture workforce

The strategic plan notes that a skilled labor force is absolutely essential in developing a competitive aquaculture industry, and proposes a series of initiatives to identify and meet current and future workforce needs across the aquaculture sector.

This includes developing education and training pathways through work-study, apprenticeships, and internships, along with regional or sector-based occupational standards and certificate programs.

Efforts will also focus on promoting and supporting local and regional programs that connect qualified applicants to employment opportunities, particularly targeting underrepresented groups and communities.

The actions will see federal agencies working with private industry partners to identify the best way to achieve this goal.

Adopting new technologies

The plan also highlights the role of innovation and technology advancement in developing a resilient aquaculture industry. The plan indicates that investment is needed across a range of aquaculture systems, including inland ponds and raceways, offshore and coastal aquaculture, integrated multi-trophic aquaculture (IMTA), and recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS).

To support development and adoption of new technologies, federal agencies will implement a range of actions, including analysing the extent of existing federal investments in aquaculture technology and identifying regulatory or policy barriers.

Agencies will also work with industry to prioritize tech development areas and support technology transfer, user training, and product implementation on farms, ensuring that innovation research benefits aquaculture producers effectively.

Investing in physical infrastructure

Developing and maintaining physical infrastructure is of "paramount importance", say the strategists. In support of this, federal agencies plan to enhance public-private partnerships to boost investment in physical infrastructure "through increased cost-effectiveness, more efficient risk allocation, and the attraction of third-party funding".

Planned actions under this aim include exploring ways to increase private investment and federal assistance, supporting the development and modernization of aquaculture infrastructure, and incorporating climate resilience into development projects.

Establishing test beds, R&D consortiums, and pilots

The plan recognizes the need for research & development facilities to refine aquaculture methods and technologies before full-scale commercialization.

"Such sites provide the means for research efforts to be conducted under commercial conditions, and also facilitate training and workforce development opportunities", the plan states - as well as the potential to "revitalize vacant or underused processing facilities".

The plan thus includes actions to prioritize and support these initiatives through coordinated funding opportunities, encouraging public-private partnerships with universities and research institutions to promote state-of-the-art research and implementation of aquaculture development research.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Seafood Expo North America 2023. </p></div>

Seafood Expo North America 2023.

Photo by: WeAreAquaculture

Goal 3: Expand market opportunities for U.S. aquaculture products

The third goal of the strategic plan focuses on expanding market opportunities for U.S. aquaculture products to strengthen the country's influence in the global seafood market.

This involves supporting new product development, further integrating U.S. aquaculture products into both domestic and international markets, and leveraging federal nutrition assistance and commodity purchasing programs to support domestic farmed seafood.

Exploring the potential of new and emerging species

The plan notes that currently there are a limited number of marine finfish species commercially grown in the U.S., but stresses "significant opportunities for expansion" with new and emerging species.

Another potential growth area is seaweed, the plan says, which although currently modest in scale, "is rapidly expanding, and the sector has the potential to bring numerous new product types to market".

In support of this, federal agencies will work with academic and industry partners to analyse the technology and economics involved, and explore market potential to scale new and emerging species to commercial production levels.

Supporting new seafood product development

The plan addresses the trend towards convenient and ready-to-cook seafood products amongst US consumers, especially post-COVID19, and proposes to support market research on consumer preferences, as well as food science R&D, and market adoption of new seafood products. This includes developing shelf-stable products and enhancing value-added seafood offerings.

Other proposed actions include federal agency collaboration to develop or update country-of-origin and nutrition labelling for aquaculture products, and ensuring new products meet U.S. regulations.

Federal agencies are also tasked with supporting development of aquaculture products for other uses, such as pet foods, pharmaceuticals, bioplastics and fertilizers.

Expanding domestic market opportunities

The plan highlights that the US consumer seafood market is dominated by importanted products, of which half are from aquaculture. At the same time, it states, around three-quarters of the US population do not consume the recommended amount of seafood in their diet.

To address this, efforts will be made to increase domestic seafood consumption through federal purchasing programs, marketing standards, and public education on seafood's health benefits.

Actions include engaging with Congress to facilitate a National Seafood Council and developing verified market labels to boost demand for domestically produced aquaculture products.

Promoting global competitiveness of U.S. seafood products

The plan also outlines actions to enhance the global competitiveness of U.S. seafood and aquaculture products, focusing on trade policy, market access, and export promotion activities.

The proposals include federal agencies collaborating on international trade programs, working with industry and trade groups to identify and pursue foreign market opportunities, identifying non-tariff trade barriers and unfair trade practices, and working to harmonize international trade rules to increase transparency and predictability, thus reducing costs and risk to U.S. exporters.

Expanding seafood purchases for Federal Nutrition Assistance Programs

The plan also proposes to explore expanding the use of seafood in federal nutrition assistance programs, increasing outreach to aquaculture producers about commodity purchase programs, and exploring opportunities to secure more seafood for these programs.

Examples of federal nutrition assistance programmes include the National School Lunch Program, the Emergency Food Assistance Program, and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Students and consumers get a chance for hands-on experience with aquaculture at the University of Maine.</p></div>

Students and consumers get a chance for hands-on experience with aquaculture at the University of Maine.

Photo: University of Maine.

Goal 4: Support aquaculture communications and literacy

It's often said in the industry that aquaculture has a "communications problem" - and it's true that consumers are often unaware or under-informed about seafood farming versus wild-caught fish and seafood.

To address this, Goal 4 of the strategic plan aims to enhance aquaculture engagement, communications, and literacy to support the expansion of domestic aquaculture.

This involves increasing community understanding and support for aquaculture, particularly in coastal areas, by improving awareness of its benefits for people, the economy, and the planet.

Efforts will focus on conveying the economic advantages to local communities, showcasing improvements in aquaculture practices, and highlighting environmental management tools to mitigate impacts.

Improving communication and enhancing aquaculture literacy

Actions identified in the plan include identifying communication needs, developing common messages to explain sustainable aquaculture benefits, leveraging existing resources for broad community outreach, creating explainer materials for the media and policymakers, and collaborating with various partners to integrate aquaculture into broader educational topics.

Increasing community engagement in aquaculture

The plan also outlines targeted outreach efforts to deepen community engagement in aquaculture. This involves cooperative initiatives to enhance community awareness, engaging with tribal communities to incorporate Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge (ITEK) in aquaculture practices, creating detailed materials on specific aquaculture topics, and increasing participation from underrepresented groups in the aquaculture sector.

Overall, the goal is to foster a more informed and supportive environment for aquaculture development through effective communication and community engagement strategies, addressing misperceptions and showcasing the positive impacts of modern, responsible aquaculture practices.

Read the U.S. Subcommittee on Aquaculture's National Aquaculture Development Plan (NADP) here.

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