Marine Aquaculture: Is it the Future of Seafood

Seaweed farming in Doyle Bay, Alaska, with Seagrove Kelp Co. Photo: NOAA.

While the concept of marine aquaculture – the nurturing and harvesting of aquatic plants and animals – has been around for decades in the U.S., the practice has been gaining more traction in recent years.

Factors such as climate change and the growing consumer demand for seafood have been driving the conversation about whether aquaculture could be a viable alternative to the wild-caught seafood industry.

Interest for seafood has been growing, especially among those with resources and consumers who are health and environmentally conscious.

“As people become more affluent around the world, there’s more capacity to pay for that seafood, and what I’ve seen recently is a large (segment) of the environmental community … have come to recognize this as well,” said Neil Anthony Sims, a marine biologist and founder and CEO of Hawaii-based Ocean Era, Inc.

“If people are going to demand more seafood, we’ve got to figure out other ways to grow it. And we can’t just be reliant on wild stocks,” he continued. “Aquaculture’s the only way that we can do that. You can’t just manage your fisheries better and have enough seafood with all these increasing demands.”

Sims is an early adopter of aquaculture. While trying to get a better handle around the commercial fisheries in the South Pacific, he saw limits to the scalability of those fisheries.

“Early on, it became abundantly obvious to us here that offshore aquaculture of marine fish was what was needed here in Hawaii,” Sims said, adding that there is a global need and opportunity to boost seafood production in a way that could feed the world’s population.  

His mariculture company, formerly called Kampachi Farms, seeks ways to commercialize marine aquaculture in a sustainable, responsible way.

“We are focused on our mission to soften humanity’s footprint on the seas and we can only do that by growing the seafood that we want,” Sims said.

For NOAA Fisheries, marine aquaculture is a critical part of its mission to support the country’s production of seafood, considered among the “most resource-efficient ways” to create a protein source. Over half of the seafood produced globally for consumption comes from aquaculture, a number that NOAA says will continue to grow.

For the last four decades, NOAA has supported aquaculture research and technology development, teaming up agency scientists with academic and private sector partners through research initiatives and a grants program. Research focus areas range from aquatic health and nutrition to aquatic species restoration and stock enhancement.

The latest effort is NOAA and the state of Alaska’s June 1 announcement regarding Aquaculture Opportunity Areas (AOAs) in Alaska state waters, making it the third region to identify AOAs, the agency said. NOAA also is looking to identify AOAs in Southern California and the Gulf of Mexico. 

NOAA is searching for AOAs of about 500 to 2,000 acres in size in both regions. Each AOA would differ depending on the location.

“With more coastline than all of the Lower 48 states combined, Alaska is uniquely positioned to benefit from a growing marine aquaculture industry,” NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator Janet Coit said.

This announcement comes as Alaska has seen a rise in permit applications for aquaculture, which accounted for $1.9 million in sales in the state in 2022.

The AOA process, which would rely heavily on public input, would only encompass state waters. Marine invertebrates such as shellfish and sea cucumbers, along with seaweed farming, would be all that is considered for the spaces.

It is illegal to conduct finfish farming in Alaska waters.

“My administration continues to work closely to promote the responsible development of aquaculture in our pristine coastal waters,” Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy said. “This sector has huge growth potential and will provide yet another example of Alaskan leadership in the seafood industry. Our state was predicated on resource development and state management of our fisheries. To that end, I welcome this help from NOAA.”

When it’s done right, Sims explained, aquaculture creates very low impact. 

“There’s been phenomenal improvements in the operational practices of fish farming that have allowed it to grow and allowed it to grow in a responsible manner,” Sims remarked.

As the Agricultural Research Service’s National Program Leader for the USDA’s Aquaculture Research Programs, Caird Rexroad oversees a national portfolio of research projects on various species, including shellfish and finfish produced in systems such as tanks, ponds and net pens.

“Our aim is to do research to help overcome some of the challenges that the industry is having … and to really try to provide some of the research and development expertise and resources that the industry doesn’t have for itself,” Rexroad said.

That includes tools to manage aquatic animal health and prevent disease, while improving systems such as split pond production systems.

A major component to ARS’ program is genetic improvement through selective breeding. For example, in Newport, Ore. there’s a genetic improvement program for Pacific oyster with the goal of breeding for resistance to the Ostreid herpesvirus type 1, which has caused high mortality rates in the oyster.

Also in the works is a project in Idaho focusing on rainbow trout, which Rexroad says is important to producers on the West Coast and throughout the nation.

Genetic improvement is almost always a priority for allied stakeholders, whether it’s to improve growth, yields or resistance to disease, Rexroad said. In one instance, four rainbow trout have been selected because they do well on diets that have soy-based ingredients. 

“They’re getting the protein source from a plant instead of fishmeal,” he said. “As we know, fish meal is a limited resource.” 

Rexroad said he has seen significantly more interest in aquaculture over the last five years.

“We’re getting new stakeholders, especially the folks that want to raise fish in a circulating aquaculture system,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of investment and I think the technology has just gotten to a place where investors feel comfortable making those investments. And still there’s research and development that remains to be done.”

Climate change and the issues that it presents in terms of ocean acidification and other challenges is also a major driver, Rexroad said.

“I think there’s a realization that aquaculture can occur almost anywhere, with land-based systems in particular, and it just provides another opportunity for seafood, a protein source,” he said. “We’re importing a great deal of our seafood into this country, so there’s an opportunity for domestic market share.”

Aquaculture presents challenges, including navigating a cumbersome regulatory space and combating an “anti-aquaculture” sentiment among those who fear change, Sims said.

So what needs to be done to move forward?

“Continuing to develop the technologies around aquaculture production is important – everything from engineering to the genetic improvement in aquatic animal health,” Rexroad said. “We need to continue to make advances in those as we do all of agriculture, including livestock production.”

Investor Confidence in Aquaculture

Meanwhile, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, which is represented on the Subcommittee of Aquaculture, recently published two plans and is in the process of publishing a third that outlines what needs to happen for aquaculture in America.

The first plan outlined the science aspect of aquaculture – Rexroad led the writing. The second plan looked at what can be done to make the regulatory process more efficient and user friendly for those applying to use federal waters, in particular for aquaculture. The third plan expands on aquaculture and economic development.

“That speaks to what it takes to get investors confident in looking at aquaculture, what are the federal programs that are already available that could be implemented and expense of aquaculture through the various agencies across the federal government,” Rexroad said. 

But there are also opportunities with aquaculture, Sims said, as it only needs a small footprint and safely may be created in conservation areas. 

“The offshore farms that we had founded here in Kona that produce Hawaiian kampachi? That’s inside the Hawaii Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary,” he said. “And that’s a really good example of how you can co-locate because offshore aquaculture has so little impact. You can co-locate these operations in areas that are set up for conservation.”

Growing aquaculture farms also helps to reduce the country’s reliance on foreign seafood as the U.S. is one of one of the biggest importers of seafood. It also provides heightened food safety.

“I think U.S. consumers would have a lot more confidence in their seafood if they knew that it was being farmed here,” he said. “We have very rigorous food safety standards.”

Sims said the U.S. is able to do aquaculture because of its massive Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) fisheries, along with an investment community and technology needed to be able to scale the effort. 

“The way that you get costs down is by finding a market demand and growing to meet that,” Sims said. 

For example, he  said his company is proposing a demonstration offshore aquaculture project on a single batch of red drum fish for the Gulf of Mexico.

“There’s no commercial fishery for red drum; that was closed down decades ago, but there’s tremendous consumer demand for that fish,” Sims remarked. “There’s a recreational fishery for it. That’s great. I love fishing as well, but that doesn’t supply the consumer demand.” 

Sims said he sees an opportunity in nurturing domestic interest in the fish.

“We would be growing species here in a way that American consumers could be familiar with and would be comfortable with,” he said, allowing “them to enjoy that seafood with that knowledge of where it was grown and that transparency.”

The Future

So is marine aquaculture the future of seafood?

“I don’t see marine aquaculture replacing fisheries,” Rexroad said. “I think these are industries that would do well to work together and to have companies that are seafood companies, part of which is from wild harvest and part of which is from aquaculture. But I think there’s a good opportunity to increase our domestic production without hurting the fisheries industry, because that would be a mistake.”

Sims said he believes wild-caught fishing and marine aquaculture can co-exist and work together to grow the seafood market. He pointed to farmed salmon when it first came onto the market.

“Initially, that really created some havoc in the Alaskan salmon fisheries, but…it grew the market,” he said. “Consumers became familiar with salmon. It wasn’t just something that was highly seasonal that you would just eat at restaurants. It was something that you could have in your freezer.”

Salmon sales rose during the pandemic, to the benefit of both the wild fisheries and the aquaculture industry, Sims said, adding that it also alleviates commercial fisheries. 

“The commercial fishermen that I talk to recognize that their stocks are under pressure; they’re coming under increasing quotas or seasonal restraints,” Sims said.

Sims said he’s also seen a lot of interest from commercial fishermen about participating in offshore aquaculture, particularly for their children. 

“They want to see a future where their children can work on the water, and that’s one thing in terms of an opportunity in the U.S. for job creation and to be able to keep people working on the water,” Sims said. “Aquaculture is farming. It doesn’t have the same romance as fishing, but it is steady employment and there’s tremendous room for job creation.”   

KAREN ROBES MEEKS, a Southern California native, is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years’ writing experience. Her articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Orange County Register and Long Beach Press-Telegram, where she worked as a reporter for nearly 14 years. Her work has been recognized by the California News Publishers Association, the Associated Press News Executives Council and the Los Angeles Press Club.