Over the last four decades in the U.S., interest in farmed seafood, aka aquaculture—at least at the federal level —has rolled in and out like the tide. However, interest alone has yet to result in the kind of projects that deliver large scale, national impacts.
In the last two years alone, numerous aquaculture initiatives had high-level federal attention, including:
- October 2020, in response to a Presidential Executive Order, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a request for information on the development of Aquaculture Opportunity Areas (AOAs), with an initial focus on sites in the Pacific Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.
- In August 2021, NOAA and the Department of Agriculture moved to update the National Aquaculture Development Plan. There should be more to come on this, like the AOAs in 2022.
- In October, U.S. Senators Roger Wicker, R-Miss., Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., introduced
S. 3100, the “Advancing the Quality and Understanding of American Aquaculture (AQUAA) Act of 2021.” The bill would establish national standards for sustainable offshore aquaculture and it names NOAA as lead agency. A largely identical bill was introduced last session in Congress, but it didn’t get the traction it needed.
- A real-world project: In September 2020 NOAA filed a notice of intent to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in response to an application from Pacific Ocean AquaFarms seeking to build a commercial-scale finfish aquaculture facility in federal waters off the coast of Southern California. A draft EIS is expected in the first quarter of 2022.
- In 2019, NOAA announced an effort to develop a Federal Aquaculture Regulatory Task Force, a move to improve regulatory efficiency. It’s not clear where this stands in the coming year.
Legislation: A Primary Concern
For many ocean aquaculture supporters, a bill such as S.3100 is considered critical because it could establish procedural and permitting efficiencies that are almost impossible to implement across separate agencies. Currently, no one’s in charge to make final permitting decisions, particularly in the timely manner required for a business investment.
“The AQUAA Act establishes a clear regulatory pathway for the management of U.S. marine aquaculture that preserves existing environmental safeguards and minimizes impacts to existing ocean-based industries,” said Sarah Brenholt, a campaign manager with Stronger America Through Seafood, an industry group supporting legislation to establish a workable regulatory aquaculture framework.
For offshore projects, Brenholt termed the current regulatory system as unnavigable.
Similarly, National Fisheries Institute Vice President of Communications Gavin Gibbons said that his organization has reviewed S.3100, supported it in the last Congressional session, and will again during this session. He added that new legislation offers the opportunity to “clarify the regulation of sustainable offshore aquaculture and in turn can help increase access to investment capital.”
Since its introduction there’s been no legislative action on S.3100 except for its referral to the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Hawaii is a key state, but Sen. Schatz did not respond to inquiries regarding his specific interests in S.3100 and any legislative strategies to advance the bill. As of this writing, there’s no companion bill in the House.
Bottom line: at the end of 2021, there was not much help for aquaculture on Capitol Hill.
On the regulatory side, it’s unclear where the Federal Aquaculture Regulatory Task Force stands right now. This work began in 2019 during the Trump Administration, so perhaps the change in administrations has caused some internal reworking. Questions to NOAA about the task force went unanswered.
A Road Map
Regulatory efforts, though, are moving on other pathways. One, a joint project between NOAA and the Department of Agriculture, establishes “a road map for federal agencies to increase the overall effectiveness and productivity of federal aquaculture regulation, research and technology transfer.”
The roadmap effort started in August 2021 and a public comment period closed on Oct. 4. Leading the project is Caird Rexroad, a National Program Leader with USDOA’s Agricultural Research Service. When asked to summarize the public comments on the roadmap, he said that of the 29 received, 24 were “supportive,” four were “partially supportive” and one was “not supportive.”
Rexroad added that the draft plan “incorporated over 160 changes,” which launched another round of reviews by agency staff. In January, a revised draft is due to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). After OSTP’s review, the revised roadmap could be publicly released.
Regarding program management and coordination, there is a special project to update the national aquaculture health plan and related standards every two years.
Rexroad said USDOA has reviewed S.3100 but would not say whether the bill contained ideas and directives that it could support.
Aquaculture Opportunity Areas
NOAA was asked to update its work on AOAs, an initiative that began in October 2020. This process included four “listening sessions” in November 2020, as well as a more traditional public comment period. A key part of this work was to identify two or three ocean sites that could be suitable for initial aquaculture projects. This early focus was on areas in the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific Ocean.
NOAA Fisheries spokesperson Katie Wagner cited two important developments in the AOA effort, the first being NOAA’s focus on public engagement, which helped set direction for NOAA staff as they winnowed down potential sites.
Second, in November, NOAA and the National Ocean Service published two Aquaculture Atlases that identify 19 areas of 500 to 2,000 acres that may be suitable for marine aquaculture in the Gulf and the Southern California Bight.
The 485-page atlas is a deep-dive characterization of ocean areas that might be suitable for aquaculture. NOAA’s detailed analysis provides site information for locations between Santa Barbara Harbor and Port Hueneme. For many sites, Ventura Harbor is a close land point. The atlases present data ranging from wind speed and wave heights to water quality to possible conflicts with oil and gas and commercial shipping. It addresses natural resource challenges, from coral reefs to whales and turtles.
“These atlases are powerful tools that will help inform the identification of AOAs in both regions,” Wagner said.
The atlases don’t establish AOAs, she stressed, “but provide peer-reviewed spatial mapping and data analyses that contribute to and inform the selection process.”
Wagner said NOAA expects to start National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) work “in late winter 2022.” This will assess aquaculture siting impacts in different potential locations.
“In the coming months NOAA will be reaching out to regional and national stakeholders to communicate atlas results and provide other AOA process updates,” she added.
Regarding S.3100, Wagner remarked that her agency cannot comment on pending legislation, but added that “with or without legislation, NOAA will continue to work with partner agencies to improve the permitting system through existing authorities.” The goal, she said, is to “make existing regulations work in concert, in a predictable way.”
“Aquaculture and wild-capture seafood are intertwined, and both are critical to our nation’s future food supply,” she said.
Pacific Ocean AquaFarms
In September 2020, NOAA announced plans to develop an EIS for a commercial-scale finfish aquaculture facility in federal waters off the coast of Southern California. The applicant, Pacific Ocean AquaFarms (POA) needed two permits: a Clean Water Act permit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency because the farm is viewed as a singular, “point source” for water contaminants, and an Army Corps of Engineers permit because of navigable water issues.
The application started with two potential sites: San Diego or Long Beach. Each would establish a facility covering about 717 acres, including 28 submersible pens, anchors, mooring lines and surface marker buoys. Initial production of California yellowtail (Seriola dorsalis), a native species, would start at 2.2 million pounds annually. Depending on environmental monitoring, that would expand to 11 million pounds.
Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, a San Diego-based non-profit research organization committed to conserving and renewing marine life, is managing POA’s permitting. Hubbs officials said they expect NOAA to release a draft EIS “sometime this winter.”
Regarding whether the wide level of federal attention given to aquaculture in 2021 was helpful to advancing projects such as theirs, they responded yes, because it demonstrates a commitment to aquaculture growth, and it helps highlight the need for “a seamless coordination of entities involved in permitting and oversight.”