In Defense of Aquaculture: An Argument for a Sustainable Seafood Future

By Danielle Edelman

Photo Credit: Peter Whyte, CSIRO via Wikimedia commons under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0

In August 2017, a massive net pen failure released thousands of Atlantic salmon into the waters of Puget Sound. This event prompted a renewed surge of energy for the many residents, lawmakers, advocacy groups, and businesses which oppose the development of net pen salmon aquaculture in Washington. From the cancellation of Cooke Aquaculture’s Port Angeles farm lease, to the signing of a bill on March 22, 2018 to eliminate the farming of non-native finfish in state waters, the future of finfish aquaculture in Washington is beginning to look grim.

The arguments against the propagation of Atlantic salmon aquaculture are many, varied, and, with some exceptions, reasonable. Aquaculture of non-native species has the potential to introduce aquatic diseases and parasites to native fish populations. Effluents from marine farms may contribute to nutrient pollution below the net pens, but in the U.S. this is regulated and is reduced by modern feeding technologies. Many people are concerned about the use of antibiotics in farmed fish, though the industry has addressed this concern in recent years. These are valid concerns, and there are certainly many examples of marine aquaculture operations which have resulted in one or more of these problems. To many people, the Cooke net pen failure is just another example of a food production system with risks that outweigh the benefits.

In the midst of the recent event, the casualties are not simply the costs of invasive fish wrangling or the hazards to native salmon, but also the visibility of sustainable and responsible aquaculture operations. In a state which brags of its status as a powerhouse of shellfish aquaculture, the lack of awareness and support for the broader aquaculture industry seems especially strange. The results of a single corporation mismanaging its farm equipment have drowned out the efforts of other businesses to introduce a new facet to Washington’s sustainable seafood industry.

Salmon net pens in Norway. Norway is a world leader in developing low impact methods for marine aquaculture.
Photo Credit: Brataffe via Wikimedia commons under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 4.0

For every company like Cooke Aquaculture which neglects regular net pen maintenance, there is another company striving to make an impact as a model for responsible net pen aquaculture. The U.S., with its vast coastlines and huge Exclusive Economic Zone (the offshore area to which a country has exclusive use rights), is an untapped resource for global aquaculture production. Some companies are investing in new technologies and developing new species for aquaculture in the hopes that they can bridge the production gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world. Even Atlantic salmon aquaculture, without a doubt one of the most vilified aquaculture industries, has blossomed in response to the dual problem of wild population decline and booming global demand. The U.S. seafood deficit (importing more of our seafood than we produce domestically) could be addressed through technologically advanced and sustainable aquaculture, but it appears that the country as a whole is uninterested in bringing this industry into our own waters.

The difficult regulatory climate for offshore aquaculture in the U.S. is both a help and a hindrance for the industry. The intense scrutiny over marine aquaculture permits generally ensures that poorly planned and environmentally dangerous projects are not permitted. Other countries such as China and Chile do not have such stringent requirements for their offshore farms, and the impacts from operations in those countries are correspondingly more significant. Unfortunately, the chill coming off state, county, and local governing groups has frozen many would-be fish farmers in their tracks. In Washington in particular, it is unlikely that any new marine finfish operations will be approved anytime soon, regardless of how many environmental and sustainability considerations they include in their proposals.

Americans are more concerned than ever before about the provenance of their seafood, rejecting foods whose production methods are harmful to the environment. For eco-conscious consumers and producers, aquaculture presents an amazing opportunity for the U.S. to join the global trend toward more sustainable seafood. Seafood Watch recently rated Maine’s farmed Atlantic salmon as a “good alternative”, giving a stamp of approval to an industry which is becoming increasingly valuable to the state. Beyond fish farming, kelp aquaculture is gaining ground in several states as a lucrative, eco-friendly seafood industry. Aquaculture is seen by many organizations as the only way to meet both the projected demand for seafood and protect wild fish stocks from overfishing. The U.S. should strive to be a leader in sustainable aquaculture production, rather than rejecting marine aquaculture based on the actions of a few irresponsible producers.