NOAA’s AOA Process

Aquaculture opportunities map. Image via NOAA.

On May 7, 2020, then-President Trump signed Executive Order 13921, titled Promoting American Seafood Competitiveness and Economic Growth. Two sections of that E.O. addressed aquaculture. Section 6 is titled Removing Barriers to Aquaculture Permitting and Section 7 is titled Aquaculture Opportunity Areas. This column is focuses primarily on Section 7.

The E.O. required the identification of at least two geographic areas containing locations suitable for commercial aquaculture within one year from the issuance of the order. These would be identified by the Secretary of Commerce, in consultation with the secretaries of defense, the Interior, Agriculture, Homeland Security and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, along with other appropriate federal officials and Regional Fishery Management Councils.

On Aug. 20, 2020, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that federal waters off Southern California and in the Gulf of Mexico were chosen first, based on the potential to host sustainable commercial aquaculture.

Within two years of identifying those areas, a programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) will be prepared for each to assess the impact of siting aquaculture facilities there. The PEIS may include the identification of suitable species for aquaculture, suitable gear for aquaculture, and suitable reporting requirements for owners and operators of aquaculture facilities, all as dictated by the location.

In November 2021, NOAA published two Aquaculture Opportunity Area (AOA) Atlases as Technical Memos, identifying AOAs in the Gulf of Mexico and Southern California. These areas were deemed to have characteristics expected to support multiple types of aquaculture industries including finfish, shellfish, seaweed or some combination.

The atlases used more than 200 data layers, including key environmental, economic, social and cultural considerations, including fishing interests and marine protected areas. The studies identified nine AOAs in the Gulf of Mexico and 10 AOAs in the Southern California Bight that may be suitable for aquaculture, while also reducing conflicts with other ocean uses. A pictorial representation of the ten AOAs in Southern California is presented in the accompanying image.

On May 23, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) published in the Federal Register a Notice of Intent to prepare a PEIS and notice of public scoping (“NOI re: PEIS”).  There was a 60-day public comment period, which closed on July 22. The NOI re: PEIS is very clear that this is a planning initiative only and does not propose any actual aquaculture facilities or permits.

Those who shaped the E.O. had the foresight to require a PEIS early in the process. This allows NOAA to make better informed decisions before final decisions are made on siting, allowable species, gear, etc. based on public input.

The advantages of preparing a PEIS are numerous, but primary amongst them is that the statement allows for the evaluation of potential environmental impacts from a proposed action. Other federal agencies (such as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM) which are looking to develop federal waters for new activities should take note.

Program-wide National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance allows for greater efficiency in preparing NEPA compliance documentation for individual projects by reducing repetitive analysis.

The NOI re: PEIS requested comments, “concerning the scope of the proposed action, its potential impacts to the natural and human environment, means for avoiding, minimizing, or mitigating potential impacts, the range of preliminary alternatives proposed in this notification, and any additional reasonable alternatives that should be considered within the Southern California Bight.”

NMFS specifically requested public input on the following 16 items:

  1. The scope of the NEPA analysis, including the range of reasonable alternatives described above.
  2. Suitable species and gear for aquaculture.
  3. Suitable reporting requirements for owners and operators of aquaculture facilities.
  4. Types of aquaculture (e.g., finfish, shellfish, seaweed, integrated multi-trophic aquaculture) that could be supported and/or analyzed.
  5. Potential impacts to biological, physical, social, cultural and economic resources.
  6. Information related to social barriers and/or economic constraints for aquaculture development.
  7. Information related to technologies and strategies that could increase opportunity or mitigate risks of aquaculture development.
  8. Information related to diversity, equity and inclusion in aquaculture and the seafood sector.
  9. Information related to climate change and climate equity.
  10. Potential interactions with protected species, essential fish habitat and other sensitive habitats.
  11. Potential interactions with commercial and recreational fishing industries, tourism and recreation and other offshore ocean users.
  12. Information on other current or planned activities in, or in the vicinity of, the areas described in this NOI and their possible impacts on aquaculture development, or the impact of aquaculture developments on those activities.
  13. Input on the size parameters of a single AOA that would be suitable to support aquaculture development in the Southern California Bight.
  14. Input related to the risks and/or benefits of whether an AOA should be a single, continuous geographic space or a collection of discrete areas separated from one another.
  15. Input related to how an AOA could simultaneously support aquaculture development along with environmental, economic and social sustainability – including ways to incorporate mitigation and cost-benefit analyses.
  16. Other information relevant to the Proposed Action and its impacts on the human environment.

Again, NMFS should be commended for this proactive approach to their planning process. Is every conceivable concern addressed? No, but this approach should give confidence to stakeholders that they will at least have meaningful opportunities to inform the process.

As of this writing in early July, I am speaking only for myself as I have not yet had a chance to discuss our position with my board. I am personally opposed to any finfish aquaculture within the Southern California Bight. There are a number of reasons for that position, including the risk of escape, potential for disease and transmission to wild fish stocks, feed impacts on water chemistry and the health of the feed stock, waste, potential loss of markets for wild-capture fish, etc.

I am also opposed to the farming of any non-native species; the marine ecosystem in the Southern California Bight is productive but fragile and bringing in any non-native species would not be sound policy in my eyes.

Nevertheless, I can see potential benefits from properly sited shellfish or algae aquaculture operations utilizing state-of-the-art infrastructure, so long as they are sited in a way that impacts to the commercial fishing industry are avoided and all operations are monitored for environmental, ecological and social effects.

By the time you read this, our PCFFA comment letter will be available, and we can see if I am successful in convincing the board to adopt my thoughts.

The NEPA environmental impacts analysis process is, of course, not over with the closing of the “Scoping” comment period on July 22, but has only just begun. If you are active in the commercial fishing industry in any way, these AOAs could affect you, and you should get involved. To find out more about this AOA designation process, see:

As noted above, the NOI re: PEIS is a planning action and does not include any specific activity that would require a permit or authorization as part of planning. There will be additional opportunities for participating as NMFS expects the Draft PEIS to be available to the public for comments on or around Fall 2023. The Final PEIS is set to be available to the public on or around April 2024.

Agency transparency with opportunities for meaningful engagement and input is always appreciated.

Useful References

Executive Order 13921 of May 7, 2020—Promoting American Seafood Competitiveness and Economic Growth.

Morris JA Jr, MacKay JK, Jossart JA, Wickliffe LC, Randall AL, Bath GE, Balling MB, Jensen BM, Riley KL. 2021. An Aquaculture Opportunity Area Atlas for the Southern California Bight. NOAA Technical Memorandum NOS NCCOS 298. 485 p. DOI: 10.25923/tmx9-ex26

May 23, 2022, Federal Register (87 Fed. Reg. 31210.) publication—Notice of intent to prepare a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement; notice of public scoping. 

Mike Conroy is the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) and its sister organization, the Institute for Fisheries Resources. He can be reached via email at: or by cell phone: (415) 638-9730.