Exploring Aquaculture: GSI Leading the Gulf’s Discovery of a Future with Farmed Seafood

by / Newsroom Ink on March 17, 2017

NEW ORLEANS, La. (March 17, 2017) — The Gulf Seafood Institute (GSI), the advocacy organization for advancing the economic, social and environmental benefits of the Gulf of Mexico’s seafood industry, is boosting its exploration of the region’s future with aquaculture.

GSI President Harlon Pearce announced today a topic-focused, 5-person committee to research the opportunities and challenges for farmed seafood in the Gulf of Mexico, and its potential for affording access to Gulf seafood for everyone in the country.

“GSI’s vision is that Gulf seafood will be available to all Americans, and it’s possible that aquaculture can help make that possible,” Pearce said. “We’re committed to exploring what’s feasible in the Gulf of Mexico, and help seafood stakeholders, fishery participants, and consumers at large navigate these opportunities. The members of our Aquaculture committee are among the most knowledgeable in the country and we’re poised to help where we can.”

The Gulf Seafood Institute’s Aquaculture Committee is comprised of Eric Buckner, Senior director of seafood for Sysco Foods, Inc., in Houston, Texas; Jim Gossen, chairman of Louisiana Seafood, in Houston, Texas; David Krebs, president of Ariel Seafoods, in Destin, Fla.; William “Corky” Perret, retired deputy director Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, Biloxi, Miss.; and Frank Randol, president of Randol’s Seafood in Lafayette, La.

Initial work is already underway. Pearce recently presented to the Soy Aquaculture Alliance at their Annual Coalition meeting in San Antonio, TX. The meeting took place during the Aquaculture America International Conference and Exposition, sponsored by the National Aquaculture Association, the U.S. Aquaculture Society and other national and international aquaculture interests.

Soy Aquaculture Alliance Executive Director Bridget Owen invited Pearce to present before her group’s national stakeholders on GSI’s upstart aquaculture effort. Owen said her organization “is very encouraged by the work GSI is doing to help support this opportunity in the Gulf.”

“Growth in Gulf aquaculture will provide U.S. consumers an opportunity to benefit from even more nutritious and delicious Gulf Seafood,” she said.  “Soy Aquaculture Alliance and the Coalition for U.S. Seafood Production (CUSP) is honored to work with GSI in these efforts.”

In addition to the Soy Aquaculture Alliance Coalition meeting, Pearce and GSI Executive Director Margaret Henderson participated in the greater Aquaculture America conference during which they met with state and federal regulators, aquaculture investors, and other Gulf seafood representatives hailing from both the land- and off-shore aquaculture communities.

AN OVERVIEW OF GULF AQUACULTURE

Federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico comprise the only region in the U.S. where permits for commercial production of offshore aquaculture are currently available. Pearce was a Member of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council in 2009 when the Council voted to pass the Fishery Management Plan (FMP) for regulating offshore marine aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico. That FMP went into effect in January 2016.

Since then, the Gulf region has seen little progress toward the alternative seafood supply that is expected to reduce the US’s dependence on foreign fish imports. Total U.S. aquaculture production, including aquatic plants, is about $1 billion annually, with about 20 percent of U.S. aquaculture production from marine species.

In the coming years, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will issue 10-year permits to companies that want to set up shop in federal waters, generally 3 miles offshore. NOAA estimates the annual U.S. domestic aquaculture production of all species could increase from about 0.5 million tons to 1.5 million tons by 2025.

“Consistent with that vision, we’re examining every opportunity to provide our seafood community with quality seafood products from the Gulf of Mexico,” said Margaret Henderson, Gulf Seafood Institute’s executive director.

“Perhaps offshore fish farming will be part of that future,” Henderson said. “The only way to know is to get out there, meet with the community, talk with those who are currently involved in aquaculture, and help our members better understand the potential business opportunities and analyze any possible downsides.”

The rest of the world is already heavily invested in farming fish. As much as 90% of the fish in the U.S. comes from abroad, and half of this is farmed, according to NOAA.

While fish farming and other aquaculture exist in the U.S., the industry has yet to really take off. And, until now, federal waters have been off limits. The U.S. government says opening the Gulf to fish farms would reduce American dependence on foreign food and improve security.

Marine aquaculture refers to the culturing of species that live in the ocean.  According to NOAA, that primarily involves oysters, clams, mussels, shrimp, and salmon in the United States, as well as lesser amounts of cod, moi, yellowtail, barramundi, seabass, and seabream.  Marine aquaculture can take place in the ocean (within cages on the seafloor or suspended in the water column) or inland, within man-made systems such as ponds or tanks.

Aquaculture includes the production of seafood from hatchery fish and shellfish.  Stock restoration or “enhancement” is a form of aquaculture in which hatchery fish and shellfish are released into the wild to rebuild wild populations or coastal habitats such as oyster reefs.  The industry also produces plant species used in a range of food, pharmaceutical, nutritional, and biotechnology products.

GSI AND NOAA PARTNER

GSI’s aquaculture committee aims to examine the potential benefits and possible risks of developing commercial-scale offshore aquaculture programs in the Gulf of Mexico, and potentially help U.S. companies apply for permits and establish operations.

“Given the multitude of hurdles yet, we’re committed to bringing Gulf stakeholders together in various forums where solutions can be explored positively, collaboratively and transparently,” said Corky Perret, a member of GSI’s Aquaculture committee.

Such was the case last November, when Gulf Seafood Institute convened their first in a series of aquaculture forums in conjunction with NOAA.

That forum, a 30-member Offshore Aquaculture Roundtable event in New Orleans, was attended by state and federal policymakers, Gulf seafood interests, recreational fishing representatives, national seafood supply chain representatives, academics and the oil and gas industry. Several more Round table events similar to the New Orleans event are anticipated in 2017.

GSI’s aquaculture forums are designed to provide fishermen and other stakeholders enough information and insight from existing aquaculture operations to help determine if aquaculture could provide a stable supplement to the existing Gulf of Mexico wild capture fishery.

In July, GSI will be partnering with the Maine Aquaculture Association to bring a delegation of Gulf seafood representatives to coastal Maine for several days to experience that state’s aquaculture industry in action. Maine provides a great example of how both wild and farmed seafood and shellfish have worked in concert to revive the coastal communities, provide U.S. jobs and restore working waterfronts.

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