Looking for a U.S. green light for fish farming in the deep blue sea

A Commerce Department agency has authorized up to 20 permits for deep-water aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico that eventually could double the finfish output of the gulf. Fish farming in the ocean would help satisfy the growing world appetite for seafood, but it also is a formidable challenge, writes Virginia Gewin. The story, produced in partnership with FERN, was published in Ensia.

Open-ocean aquaculture, carried out in deep and swift water, could reduce the potential for disease, pollution and habitat damage that have brought environmental complaints about fish farms in shallow coastal waters. Production in the Gulf of Mexico would reduce the shipping costs that nations, such as Vietnam, charge to supply the U.S. market. And fish are far more efficient at converting feed into meat than hogs or cattle.

“One strong argument in favor of ramping up open-ocean aquaculture in the United States is that the country imports 90 percent of its seafood, and half of that is farm-raised overseas in operations that can have dubious internal levels of food-safety and environmental oversight,” says Gewin.

The U.S. plan for aquaculture in the gulf is under challenge in court by groups ranging from environmentalists to commercial and recreational fishers. “Fishermen are concerned about keeping the gulf safe and productive in light of the scale of aquaculture being proposed,” says Will Ward, an attorney for fisheries plaintiffs. There are concerns about escaped fish, where to locate an industrial fish farm in a body of water teeming with ship traffic and oil production, the impact on fishing fleets that capture wild fish, if effluent can be contained, and whether regulators can truly control ocean aquaculture.

And there are questions about the economics and the scale of operation. The Commerce Department would limit operators in the gulf to a maximum of 5,800 tons of fish a year. By some perspectives, that would be a huge operation requiring large investments. “That’s laughable — the size of a modest Norwegian fish farm,” says Neil Sims, who plans an offshore farm near Mexico.