by NOAA staff and Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood Institute
The Gulf of Mexico’s rapidly growing aquaculture industry got a big boost from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) with a recent filing allowing for the farming of fish in the Gulf of Mexico. The seafood industry’s watchdog opened the door for expansion of aquaculture, the practice of raising marine species in controlled environments, in the federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico.
NOAA administrator Kathryn Sullivan, Ph.D. made the announcement at the American Meteorological Society meeting held in New Orleans. She described the agency’s decision as a final rule implementing the nation’s first comprehensive regulatory program for aquaculture.
According to Sullivan expanding U.S. aquaculture in federal waters complements wild harvest fisheries and supports efforts to maintain sustainable fisheries and resilient oceans.
“As demand for seafood continues to rise, aquaculture presents a tremendous opportunity not only to meet this demand, but also to increase opportunities for the seafood industry and job creation,” said the NOAA administrator.
Meeting Rising Seafood Demand
Prior to the announcement of the new Aquaculture Plan, an exempted fishing permit was required to conduct aquaculture in federal waters. Since exempted fishing permits are of limited duration, they are not the best option for commercial aquaculture operations.
After receiving a permit, companies will be allowed to anchor large cages on the Gulf floor to raise everything from red drum, to cobia, to almaco jack in federal waters for an initial period of 10 years.
This new ruling is an opportunity for Gulf communities to displace imports and have sustainably-sourced United States fish, such as redfish, once again on the plates of American restaurants and homes.
According to Harlon Pearce, President of the Gulf Seafood Institute, this is going to completely change the seafood industry for the better. He believes fishery aquaculture in the Gulf will allow the U.S. to once again become a fish producing country creating new jobs and a safe quality product.
“The development of aquaculture in the Gulf will be beneficial to both growers as well as commercial wild harvesters,” said Pearce, who sits on NOAA’s Fishery Advisory Board and attended the announcement. “It’s time to start putting our fishermen back to work so we no longer have to depend on imported fish to meet Americas growing demand. This new Gulf aquaculture will also elevate wild harvested fish to a higher status.”
Sound and Sustainable Aquaculture
This new rulemaking establishes a regional permitting process to manage the development of an environmentally sound and economically sustainable aquaculture industry. A maximum of twenty Gulf aquaculture permits could be issued under this final rule.
The new ruling:
- Establishes Gulf aquaculture permit requirements, eligibility, and transferability
- Establishes application requirements, operational requirements, and restrictions for Gulf Aquaculture permits
- Establishes Gulf aquaculture permit duration and renewal periods
- Specifies allowable species for aquaculture purposes
- Evaluates proposed aquaculture systems on a case-by-case basis
- Establishes marine aquaculture siting requirements and conditions
- Creates a restricted access zone around each aquaculture facility where no fishing may occur and no fishing vessels may operate
- Establishes recordkeeping and reporting requirements
- Establishes biological reference points for aquaculture operations
- Specifies procedures for modifying biological reference points and management measures for offshore marine aquaculture in the Gulf
”This is all about managing and expanding seafood farming in an environmentally sound and economically sustainable way,” said Michael Rubino, director, NOAA Fisheries Office of Aquaculture. “The permit process we’ve laid out accounts for the region’s unique needs and opens the door for other regions to follow suit.”
According to the agency, NOAA Fisheries is also working on guidance for the baseline environmental survey, assurance bond requirements and guidance on broodstock sourcing and hatchery breeding practices.
While this framework is the first of its kind in federal waters, Gulf states already support many successful and thriving aquaculture operations in their waters including the commercial farming of oysters and clams. Currently U.S. aquaculture is a billion dollar business, responsible for producing approximately 20% of the U.S. seafood production by value.
“This is great news for our country,” said Jim Gossen, Chairman of Sysco Louisiana Seafood and a Texas GSI Board Member. “We currently import more than 85 percent of the seafood this country eats. This is not good for our economy and it places risks on our seafood security. Mariculture has so many benefits if done sustainably, and with the future growth of the population it makes it a real necessity.”