Most of the seafood Americans eat is farmed shrimp and salmon, along with canned tuna — often from the other side of the world. The U.S., which is the largest global importer of fish, imports 70 to 85 percent of its seafood at a cost of $22 billion, leading to a $17 billion seafood-trade deficit.
One way to change this dynamic is to increase our production of fish. The supply of wild fish has been steady for the last three decades, but aquaculture is the fastest growing form of food production in the world. The U.S. has a minuscule share of the global market and is ranked 18th in the world. Developing a more robust marine-aquaculture industry would increase the supply of domestic, fresh fish; help reduce the seafood-trade deficit; provide a product farmed to higher environmental standards; and create jobs in coastal communities.
The AQUAA Act (Advancing the Quality and Understanding of American Aquaculture), introduced in Congress in late 2021, is a key building block for such a 21st-century industry. Versions of this bill have been floating around Congress since 2018. Previous aquaculture bills failed in 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2011. It’s time to fish or cut bait — and begin debate on a bipartisan bill that could deliver some clarity on a contentious issue that the U.S. needs to resolve.
The National Aquaculture Act of 1980 established aquaculture as a national policy priority for the U.S. But that policy, largely aimed at fresh-water farming, has not evolved to keep pace with the change in aquaculture over the last 42 years — particularly the rise of marine aquaculture (mariculture). By contrast, the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), which governs wild fisheries, was signed into law in 1976 and amended in 1996 and 2007. The MSA has made the U.S. a global leader and model for responsible, wild-fisheries management.
I see the AQUAA Act as a long-overdue companion to the MSA. The U.S., with more ocean territory than any other country in the world except for France, has a great opportunity to build on its fisheries-management reputation and become a world leader in responsible ocean-based aquaculture.
Aquaculture on land and up to three miles offshore is managed by the states in conjunction with federal agencies . Aquaculture in federal waters — 3 miles to 200 miles off the coast — is allowed but almost no projects have been permitted. This is largely a function of complex and cumbersome application and regulatory processes and the lack of a lease provision necessary to attract investment. Lawsuits from wild-capture fishermen and environmental groups have also slowed the permitting process.
The AQUAA Act directs the Department of Commerce to create an Office of Offshore Aquaculture within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries to coordinate regulatory and scientific issues. The bill aims to uphold existing environmental standards and identify areas particularly well-suited for aquaculture. Notably, the bill would grant successful applicants a 25-year permit for “offshore aquaculture to be conducted in an aquaculture opportunity area,” although this language is somewhat vague and should be strengthened.
Critics say the bill would authorize “industrial” farming with deleterious environmental effects and negative impacts on native, wild stocks. Some say it would lead to a privatization of the sea by granting long-term tenure of ocean acreage to individuals or corporate interests. Others say a new law is not necessary and that current federal regulations are sufficient. Advocates say the bill would create jobs, push the U.S. into a lead position in a dynamic industry, reduce the seafood trade deficit and rebuild local and regional fish distribution systems — a boon to both wild and farmed fish.
The Senate bill has been referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. A related House bill has been referred to the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation. There’s a lot to talk about, so let’s start talking.
Nicholas P. Sullivan is senior research fellow at the Maritime Studies Program and a senior fellow at the Council on Emerging Market Enterprises, both in The Fletcher School at Tufts University. Sullivan is the author of “The Blue Revolution: Hunting, Harvesting, and Farming Seafood in the Information Age.”