Last week, the Trump administration announced an executive order opening the door for large-scale fish farming.
That order, as reported by the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN), is designed at its core to expand the scope and facilities for aquaculture. What that likely means is a reduction in regulations, and the creation of large offshore fish farms.
The order includes several components. Perhaps most importantly is to allow finfish aquaculture “in marine and coastal waters out to the limit of the territorial sea and in ocean waters beyond the territorial sea within the exclusive economic zone of the United States.” Most aquaculture—seafood farming—in the United States’ wild waters is for bivalves like oysters, clams, and mussels. Bivalves are filter feeders; they clean the water, and many bivalve aquaculture projects are designed to restore native bivalves to polluted waters, like the Long Island Sound, near and around New York City.
Finfish aquaculture, which involves fish like salmon and tilapia, is mostly done in artificial facilities in the United States. Tilapia, for example, is usually grown in recirculating tanks, often far inland, where waste can be collected and environmental impacts can be minimized. Domestic farmed tilapia only accounts for about five percent of American tilapia consumption, but it’s a good option for the environment.
The executive order opens the door for offshore operations, which are typically huge floating cages where fish can be raised and farmed. Doing these in federal waters, between three and 200 miles offshore, was not permitted until this executive order.
The order would place regulation of these farms under the aegis of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It also asks seafood industry companies for their input on, essentially, regulations that they think should be cut.
The seafood industry in the United States is a bit of a strange one. With two oceans, huge rivers, and the Gulf of Mexico, the US is a powerhouse in terms of seafood. But the vast majority of that seafood is exported, and seafood processing is oddly limited in that even some of the domestic seafood that’s actually consumed in the US goes overseas for processing before being shipped back for sale.
Environmental groups and those concerned with sustainable seafood are not in favor of pretty much anything in this executive order. “The move threatens our ocean ecosystem, local fishing communities and coastal economies,” writes Friends of the Earth in a press release. Farmed seafood of this sort is associated with all kinds of nasty effects: parasites and diseases passed from farmed pens to wild fish, pesticides and antibiotics leaking into the ocean, and escaped fish outcompeting wild fish for food or devouring vulnerable animals.
FERN notes that the timeline for this executive order is extremely brief: only 90 days for a permit to be drafted, and two years for an environmental review. Both of those figures are short for this type of effort, and with the federal government already hamstrung by COVID-19, environmental groups are concerned that due diligence will not be a priority.
While offshore fish farms would be a boon to major seafood corporations, smaller fishermen would be harmed by it in several ways. Those environmental effects could deplete the health of wild waters, which fishermen depend on. They could also flood the market with cheaper farmed fish, harming the demand for more sustainably caught seafood.
And fishermen are deeply struggling right now, anyway. Restaurants and hotels, which make up about two-thirds of the market for the American seafood industry, are pretty much all closed. This order will not help them; in fact, it seems more likely to hurt them.