Updated on April 21, 2016
Lots of people have told me that they aren’t sure what to make of aquaculture. Having heard that some kinds of fish farming are deleterious to the environment, some people assume that all farming of fish and shellfish is bad (not true), while others assume that all of it is good because they think that it takes pressure off of wild populations (not always true). Here’s the real situation: if aquaculture had a Facebook relationship status it would read “It’s complicated.”
The environmental – and, for that matter, socioeconomic – impact of farming fish or shellfish depends a lot on what, where, and how it is being raised. This description of aquaculture lists some of the benefits and also some of the common problems that are associated with it.
For example, Salmon farming can harm wild populations due to the spread of diseases from fish in overcrowded pens to populations of wild salmon that swim nearby. Farmed salmon also sometimes escape, creating competition with the wild population for resources, such as the fish that they feed on. Densely populated pens can also produce a great deal of waste, and some farms use strong pesticides to treat infestations, like sea lice, that afflict the salmon in their pens.
On the other hand, farming shellfish, such as oysters, clams, or mussels, raises few environmental concerns. These mollusks are filter feeders, so they do not need to be fed any man-made “feed,” and they actually clean the waters where they are grown. You couldn’t find a more environmentally-friendly form of seafood.
Some fish are even farmed on land in closed containers, such as Barramundi. In the U.S., farmed Barramundi is raised in closed aquaculture systems, where water is recycled and very little waste is released into the environment. The waste that is released is heavily treated and can be used as fertilizer for agriculture. So, as you can see, whether aquaculture is “good” or “bad” is determined in large part by the type of production system and species in question.
Humans have been raising fish and shellfish for millennia. Historically, farmed fish and shellfish provided only a small portion of the seafood eaten around the world. Recently, however, aquaculture is playing an increasingly large role in the effort to meet – and profit from – the global demand for seafood. According to the FAO, the amount of seafood produced via aquaculture for human consumption is poised to overtake wild caught fish in the near future. (In fact, this watershed moment already came to pass last year if you include fish raised for animal consumption and other products.)
Aquaculture is not going to go away anytime soon – nor should it. However, there needs to be an effort to discover the best ways to produce seafood while simultaneously caring for the populations of fish and shellfish, the people who tend the farms, and the wider physical environment in which all of this activity takes place. Right now, most nations are forging their own policies and there are few laws or guidelines that exist that address aquaculture concerns on an international basis.
In the U.S., NOAA has recently published its new National Marine Aquaculture Policy. While it’s good to see that they are engaging with the issue and putting time, effort, and resources toward creating an effective policy, so far the document that they have produced falls short of the goal of producing meaningful principles and guidelines and providing effective means of enforcement. Furthermore, it’s being based on provisions within the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which was really written to address issues having to do with wild populations of fish, not farmed fish and shellfish, which means that this ends up being sort of like putting on mittens because your feet are cold – not quite the right solution to the problem.
According to Dr. George Leonard, Ocean Conservancy’s aquaculture program director, while the draft policy was a step in the right direction, “NOAA needs to call on Congress to empower the agency with the needed authority to protect our ocean from the well-known environmental risks caused by ocean fish farming. There is currently no guarantee that any new fish farms will be required to meet these guidelines. Unless and until comprehensive new federal legislation that addresses environmental, socioeconomic, and liability concerns is passed, open ocean aquaculture should not proceed in our ocean.”
In an interview with Blue Ocean Institute, Leonard enumerated the environmental dangers posed by open ocean fish farming. There are concerns about nutrient pollution, escapement, and issues around the amount and type of feed needed to raise fish in an aquaculture setting.
Leonard also expressed concern that the policy as it is written explicitly states the guidelines as being discretionary. He explained that it was designed to ensure flexibility and be easily modified. Leonard noted in particular that even the section that was formerly called “Principles” has been renamed “Goals.” He feels strongly that the need for specific, well-articulated regulations – and the power to back up the enforcement of those regulations – can only come from Congress.
One of the reasons that Leonard finds this lack of definition and accountability so troubling is that he is afraid that this amorphous and changeable quality will ultimately be extended to issues like farming genetically engineered salmon in the ocean. He expressed his concern about this issue in the Ocean Conservancy’s press release:
“…the agency’s policy is strangely silent on the current controversy surrounding the Food and Drug Administration’s potential approval of the first genetically engineered animal for human consumption – an engineered version of farmed salmon. Given the extreme risk to oceans that genetically engineered fish pose, it is unacceptable that ocean farming of genetically engineered fish is not categorically excluded in the agency’s new policy…. Clearly a national debate is needed on the future of our seafood supply – including what, if any, role should be played by genetically engineered fish and fish farming in the ocean. Binding national standards – that can only emanate from Congress – is what is ultimately needed”
Dr. Richard Langan, Director, Atlantic Marine Aquaculture Center at the University of New Hampshire, expresses similar concerns about the effectiveness of the policy:
“While I am somewhat encouraged by and found nothing objectionable in the NOAA draft policy statement, there is also nothing there that convinces me that anything will actually get done. I have been involved the aquaculture “dialogue” for nearly 30 years, seen policy documents, aquaculture plans etc., however, it seems that on the ground, very little has changed. We are still talking about whether we are going to allow domestic marine aquaculture to develop when we should be talking about where, how, and how quickly it can and should be developed. Much of the inertia has been caused by concerns about the impacts of large-scale aquaculture production. While we absolutely need to consider and manage for real and potential impacts, we must also consider the consequences of not moving forward, which in my opinion, will be far more damaging to our economy, the environment, and the health and welfare of the American people. Developing a safe, healthy and robust domestic seafood supply should be a national priority.”
How will all of this play out in the end? Will the need for stronger and better-defined regulations and enforcement be recognized and acted upon? Will the results of the next election play a significant role in this issue?
– Roz Cummins