Energy/Environment

Why NOAA seeks to open federal waters off Hawaii to fish farming

The federal waters surrounding Hawaii may soon be opened to offshore fish farming. But recent experience in the Gulf of Mexico shows that these plans could spark a backlash.

A diver swims among farmed fish off of Hawaii's Big Island near Kona in September 2015. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is creating a plan for managing commercial fish farms in federal waters around the Pacific, a program similar to one in the Gulf of Mexico.
Paul B. Hillman/NOAA Fisheries/AP | Caption

The federal government hopes to boost US seafood production with new fish farms.

On Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which regulates US fisheries, took the first steps towards allowing aquaculture in federal waters off the coast of Hawaii. Aquaculture – raising fish in captivity, rather than catching them in the wild – already takes place in ponds on the Hawaiian islands and in state waters off the coast. By expanding the practice to a nearly 200-mile-wide belt of federal waters surrounding the islands, NOAA aims to create new opportunities for seafood firms.

NOAA’s move comes amid a global push to expand aquaculture. Fish farms produce half of all fish consumed by humans, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in 2015, with rapid growth projected in coming decades. Some environmentalists hope that this trend can preserve marine ecosystems while providing more food for a growing human population. But others point out that aquaculture has drawbacks, such as use of antibiotics in open waters, and escapes of non-native fish into surrounding ecosystems.

These risks have already sparked opposition to aquaculture in the United States, and could threaten NOAA’s efforts in Hawaii.

"In the Western Pacific, it’s in the very early days at this point," Michael Rubino, the aquaculture program director for NOAA fisheries, told the Monitor in a phone interview, adding that Thursday’s announcement marks the start of a long process.

No permit structure currently exists for aquaculture near Hawaii. One will be developed with help from NOAA’s Western Pacific Council, one of eight Regional Fishery Management Councils that represent states, fishermen, and other stakeholders. After the Western Pacific Council receives public input and develops a plan for Hawaiian aquaculture, NOAA will use that plan to develop a final set of regulations.

Hawaiian fish farms will serve NOAA’s larger goal of increasing US seafood production. On its website, the agency points out that the US currently imports more than 90 percent of its seafood. "Aquaculture presents a tremendous opportunity not only to meet US demand, but also to increase opportunities for the seafood industry and job creation," Kathryn Sullivan, NOAA administrator, says in a statement.

Not all fishing firms and conservationists agree. In January 2016, NOAA introduced aquaculture regulations for the Gulf of Mexico, the first for any US fishery. The following month, a coalition of fishing and environmental groups, led by the Center for Food Safety, sued NOAA, claiming that the rules failed to protect them against "a plethora of well-known adverse environmental and intertwined socioeconomic consequences."

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit focused on marine pollution, arguing that "many industrial aquaculture facilities use large doses of pharmaceuticals, antibiotics, pesticides, fungicides, and algaecides, attempting to protect their investment from diseases, parasites, and various other detrimental organisms."  

A ruling on the Gulf of Mexico lawsuit is still pending, but some of these environmental consequences have already been felt elsewhere. Last May, pollution from salmon farms off the coast of Chile fed an algal "red tide" that devastated the area’s wild fisheries.

US regulations may offer more protection. The National Aquaculture Association downplays fish farms’ risks. "Because of federal and state government oversight," it explains in a brochure to seafood marketers, "you can meet your customers’ expectations that the US farm-raised fish you serve is sustainable, environmentally friendly, high quality, and wholesome."

NOAA's Rubino agrees, saying that "We continue to push the envelope on sustainability." In one sign of sustainable aquaculture outside the US, Norway won praise from the World Health Organization for eliminating the dispersal of antibiotics  from its salmon farms.

Despite these results, NOAA’s experience in the Gulf of Mexico shows that many US coastal residents take a dim view of aquaculture. This could bode ill for Hawaii.  "At the end of the day, the rule that’s likely to come out of the Western Pacific will likely be quite similar to the one in the Gulf," Dr. Rubino predicts.

But some key factors separate Hawaii from the Gulf, which hosted no deep-water aquaculture before the rule. The Aloha State’s fishermen have already coexisted with two open-ocean fish farms, growing moi and yellowtail in state waters, for more than a decade.

The longline fishermen who catch tuna may also have reason to accept aquaculture. Tuna constitutes the bulk of Hawaii’s commercial fish catch, according to the state’s Department of Land and Water resources. Syd Kraul, who farms fish in ponds on Hawaii, recently told Hawaii business that “Replacing or supplementing wild catch with hatchery-raised tuna makes sense,” but ensuring “the survival of [tuna] larvae” was difficult.  

One method could include a place for commercial fishers. Rubino described a "hybrid ... where small [young] tuna are caught and fattened in a net pen." NOAA recognized the need for solutions like these as far back as 2008. A report issued that year acknowledged that "a major challenge for fishermen is to figure out how to use aquaculture as a complement to their wild catch and/or income."

Even if Hawaii presents friendlier waters for aquaculture, its success will likely depend on good communication between NOAA officials and local fishermen. These two groups failed to connect in the Gulf of Mexico.  In its suit against NOAA, the Center for Food Safety argued that the rulemaking Gulf Council’s public meetings were "poorly publicized in the local communities" and scheduled at inconvenient times," resulting in "little public input."

For their part, local fishermen would need to accept aquaculture in modern seafood production. The center’s suit also alleged that NOAA’s aquaculture regulations overstepped its mandate to manage US fisheries. But this distinction may soon blur. As the world’s demand for seafood grows, fish-producing regions will likely come to rely on a combination of aquaculture and fishing, and need appropriate rules.

"We’ve done a really good job in the US of stopping overfishing and putting all of our stocks under management plans," Rubino says. "Even if we can get a little more seafood [through commercial fishing], it’s not going to be enough to satisfy current or future demands. So we need to turn to seafood farming."

This article contains reported material from the Associated Press and The Guardian.

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated NOAA's official intent on aquaculture regulations. The agency's Western Pacific Council has taken up the matter, but there has not been a formal announcement from NOAA.]