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The demand for sustainable seafood and, with it, offshore aquaculture continues to grow in the U.S. and regulators are questioning what the appropriate framework should be for the development of this industry. A new report published in the scientific journal Marine Policy states that more studies and data are needed to set regulatory standards to guide the next steps for this growing industry in U.S. federal waters. “The report is a springboard for next steps in shaping a regulatory framework for a science-based approach to aquaculture”, says the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the international nonprofit organization whose Senior Scientist, Rod Fujita, leads the report.

Not starting from scratch

Seven in ten U.S. voters say they would eat more seafood if it were sustainably and locally farmed. Demand is growing, and Congress and policymakers are considering legislation and regulations to develop offshore aquaculture in U.S. federal waters. It is time to establish an appropriate framework for developing the industry, but according to the report, ‘Toward an environmentally responsible offshore aquaculture industry in the United States: Ecological risks, remedies, and knowledge gaps’, there are still unanswered questions that need to be solved before doing so.

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“We aren’t starting from scratch”, said Rod Fujita, Senior Scientist at the EDF and lead author of the report. “There are many lessons from nearshore aquaculture practices and existing offshore pilot projects that we can apply to offshore aquaculture. But there are also many unanswered questions, so more research is needed to create a regulatory framework that safeguards the environment based on science, while allowing the offshore aquaculture industry to develop in the U.S.”.

Questions still unanswered

How to choose sites to optimize production and environmental performance? How to minimize the risk of disease and pathogen outbreaks? How to mitigate the risk of detrimental interactions with wildlife? What data are needed to determine optimal stocking densities for specific species at specific locations? How to control and avoid adverse impacts of metabolic waste around offshore sites? These are just some of those unanswered questions that Rod Fujita was referring to.

The report published in Marine Policy identifies key knowledge gaps related to siting optimizations, infrastructure and marine wildlife, disease and escape prevention, stocking, feed and metabolic waste. Having more data and studies on these potential risks of offshore aquaculture and possible mitigation strategies is the fundamental basis on which to establish the regulatory standards for sustainable shellfish farming in U.S. waters that are to be developed in the near future.

Looking for a balance between industry and marine ecosystem

“Offshore aquaculture is growing in interest and application, so highlighting its potential, risks, and research needs is critical to help chart a better path forward”, said Halley Froehlich, report co-author and Assistant Professor for Marine Aquaculture and Fisheries Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara (USCB).

Another of the report’s co-authors, Matthew Thompson, Director of Aquaculture Programs at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, thinks that offshore aquaculture in the U.S. presents an exciting opportunity for more homegrown seafood but, like any ocean use, it must balance industry development with the conservation of marine ecosystems and wildlife. “To achieve this balance, several outstanding challenges require innovative solutions which we hope this work will inspire”, he claimed.

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The report was a collaborative effort of the aforementioned co-authors Rod Fujita of EDF; H.E. Froehlich of UCSB; and M. Thompson, Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, New England Aquarium; together with P. Brittingham, School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences at Stanford University; L. Cao, School of Oceanography at Shanghai Jiao Tong University; and T.M. Voorhees, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Cargill Aqua Nutrition. 

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