(Aqua)Culture Wars

Four net pens protrude from the water with snow covered hills in the background. The water surface is calm and flat.
Net Pen Aquaculture, an especially controversial form of aquaculture in the US. (Source: Thomas Bjørkan 3/26/10, Wikimedia Commons).


Depending on who you ask, offshore aquaculture is either key to meeting food demands in a growing world and shrinking the US trade deficit, or it will catastrophically destroy ecosystems and livelihoods. Most government agencies involved in managing offshore aquaculture support its development, but most of the people it would directly affect outside of the industry oppose it.

Sounds tricky, but not quite like the culture war you mentioned in the title.

Ok, T.S. Elliot, let’s go to the Gulf of Mexico and then you’ll know what I’m talking about. On September 26, 2018, a US District Court in Louisiana ruled that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) couldn’t regulate offshore aquaculture. The decision was celebrated by conservation groups, fishermen, food safety advocates, and even other aquaculture sectors who were plaintiffs in the lawsuit as protecting wild fish and the entire Gulf of Mexico from a potentially dangerous industry. One year later, the first offshore aquaculture operation was proposed in the Gulf of Mexico.

Didn’t you just say that offshore aquaculture can’t be regulated?

Good eye! The short answer is it can, but just not the way NOAA tried before the lawsuit. The long answer is that, in 2016, NOAA established a permitting process for offshore aquaculture, after the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council finalized a Fishery Management Plan for offshore aquaculture. The plan established a permitting process for aquaculture operations interested in the Gulf of Mexico, within the Regional Fishery Management Council and Magnuson-Stevens Act framework. The court we were talking about earlier decided that the Council and NOAA couldn’t regulate aquaculture because it’s not “fishing.”

Wait, why are you talking about fishing? What the heck does fishing have to do with this?

Honestly, I was trying to avoid this. But you asked, so here we go: it’s for legal reasons. Don’t worry, I’ll keep this short. The Magnuson-Stevens Act is the primary act governing fisheries in the oceans around the United States. The Act created Regional Fishery Management Councils (like the one in the Gulf of Mexico!) made up of people involved in the fishing industry who essentially tell NOAA how to regulate the nation’s fisheries. This is the framework that aquaculture Fishery Management Plan was created under, and that’s the problem. The court found that NOAA and the Council couldn’t regulate aquaculture because, under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, they can only regulate “fishing.” Conveniently, Congress defined fishing as “the catching, taking, or harvesting of fish.” According to the court, aquaculture doesn’t fit that definition.

That’s, uh, weird. Wait a minute! You still haven’t told me how aquaculture can be regulated after that whole court battle.

Hey, you asked the other question. Aquaculture can still be regulated, just through a piecemeal permitting process that involves multiple agencies. It could before the Fishery Management Plan in the Gulf, too. The whole point of the plan was to reduce some of the time and uncertainty involved in the permitting process. After the court’s decision, an aquaculture business had to go back to wading through an uncertain permitting process aquaculture operations receive permission to operate through permits from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers. These agencies are required to consult with a plethora of other federal and state agencies, including, go figure, NOAA. 

A large sphere made of metal and netting protrudes from bright blue water. A person is climbing on near the top of the sphere wearing a red life jacket.
A free-floating fish cage, known as the Aquapod, in operation. (Source: InnovaSea).


So, is the ocean going to be filled with aquaculture operations now?

Probably not, the offshore aquaculture permitting process is time consuming and uncertain to the point that most potential businesses stayed away in the first place. The operation that’s currently pursuing permits in the Gulf, Kampachi Farms, is doing it to show the benefits of responsible offshore aquaculture. They even received a grant from NOAA Sea Grant in Florida for the demonstration. One of the company’s co-founders, Neil-Anthony Sims, argues that once their unique system, the free-floating Aquapod, is up and running that fishermen and the tourist industry will change their minds on aquaculture. 

Weren’t the fishermen the people who you said sued NOAA about aquaculture at the beginning?

Indeed they are! Fishermen are some of the biggest opponents of aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico (and the rest of the U.S.). Sims claims that the Aquapods act as Fish Aggregating Devices and will make it easier for fishermen to find their catch. He also claims that tourists and the tourist industry will love the Aquapods, because they will essentially work as free-floating reefs. The thinking from Kampachi and NOAA Sea Grant is that once other people who rely on the ocean see that they can coexist with aquaculture, they will stop opposing it.

That sounds tough. Will it work?

Maybe! What do I know? I’m just a guy on the internet! IF Kampachi gets all the permits they need, IF nothing goes wrong with their test, and IF the pods work as they claim they will; they could start changing some minds, but even that’s not guaranteed. Personally, I think fishermen and tourists messing around near the Aquapods add to the likelihood all those things won’t happen. What’s for sure, is that the controversy, opportunity, and uncertainty surrounding aquaculture isn’t going anywhere.