Government Opens Gulf of Mexico to Fish Farming

NOAA Assures All Environmental Bases Are Covered

Neon sign for market selling fresh fish
NOAA Opens Gulf of Mexico to Fish Farming. Kevin Schafer / Getty Images

For the first time in U.S. history, commercial fish farming will be allowed in waters controlled by the federal government.

Noting that 90% of the fish now consumed in the U.S. comes from abroad and that 50% of that fish is farmed, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that it had filed a final government regulation creating a system for issuing permits for fish farming in the Gulf of Mexico.

According to NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan, the move will help the Gulf region “expand seafood production and create new jobs in an environmentally sustainable manner.”

The government’s stated goal in opening federal waters to fish farming is, of course, to reduce the nation’s dependence on imported food while also bolstering the U.S. food safety and security system

“As demand for seafood continues to rise, aquaculture presents a tremendous opportunity not only to meet this demand, but also to increase opportunities for the seafood industry and job creation,” NOAA administrator Kathryn Sullivan, Ph.D., said in a press release. “Expanding U.S. aquaculture in federal waters complements wild harvest fisheries and supports our efforts to maintain sustainable fisheries and resilient oceans.”

What is Aquaculture?

Aquaculture – fish farming – is the controlled breeding, rearing, and harvesting of commercially important marine animals and plants in all types of ponds, rivers, lakes, and the ocean.

Aquaculture produces food fish, sport fish, bait fish, ornamental fish, crustaceans, mollusks, algae, sea vegetables, and fish eggs.

In the ocean, fish farming is generally done in net-like cages located either on the seafloor, or suspended in the water.

Under NOAA’s new permitting system, fish farmers will be allowed to grow species like red drum, cobia, and almaco jack in federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico for an initial period of 10 years.

While there are currently no commercial aquaculture operations in federal waters, two mussel farms off the coast of Massachusetts and one off California received federal permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2015.

NOAA expects the first permits for commercial aquaculture operations in the Gulf of Mexico to be approved and issued in 2018.

Where in the Gulf Will Aquaculture Be Allowed?

Federal waters of the United States begin where the states’ control ends, typically from three to nine nautical miles offshore, and extending 200 nautical (about 230 statute miles) offshore.

In this case, aquaculture operations will be allowed in federal waters at least three nautical miles off Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama and nine nautical miles off Texas and the west coast of Florida.

Economic Impact of Fish Farming

The economic impact of fish farming is not to be underestimated. For example, in 2103 alone, U.S. aquaculture operations generated $1.4 billion in value, or about 20% of the year’s total U.S. seafood production.

What About the Environmental Effects?

While NOAA ensured that it had considered “thousands of public comments” in crafting the new rule, many critics cite potential environmental dangers of fish farming.

“While fish farms cause many of the same problems as factory farms on land – waste, pesticides, antibiotics, parasites and disease – the issues are magnified because of the immediate contamination of the surrounding ocean water,” writes Animal Rights Expert Doris Lin.

Lin also stressed the dangers of genetically modified fish escaping into the wild when the nets used in fish farming fail, “which forces us to ask what happens when they escape and either compete with or interbreed with wild populations,” she wrote.

In November 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the first time declared a genetically modified animal – a farm-raised salmon – to be safe for human consumption.

However, NOAA assured that its Gulf fish farming permitting process would employ “comprehensive safeguards” intended to ensure the continued good environmental health of oceans and coastal areas involved, and will take into account the gamut of other uses of the Gulf waters, such as commercial and sport fishing.

In addition to a permit from NOAA, fish farming operations in federal waters must get permits from the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

”This is all about managing and expanding seafood farming in an environmentally sound and economically sustainable way,” said Michael Rubino, director, NOAA Fisheries Office of Aquaculture. “The permit process we’ve laid out accounts for the region’s unique needs and opens the door for other regions to follow suit.”