Food

The U.S. Has Approved Industrial Aquaculture in Deep Offshore Waters for the First Time — and It’s a Huge Step Backwards

If the U.S. public had known the extent of harms that industrial agriculture would cause, we would have never allowed it to become the norm.

Aquaculture
Photo Credit: shutterstock

The tragedy of industrial agriculture, the unwise adoption of inherently unsustainable forms of food production over the past generation, has cost us dearly in environmental destruction and public health. From millions of acres of monocultured, genetically engineered, pesticide-promoting crops to inhumane and filthy, water-and-air-polluting Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), the dominant paradigm for current crop and animal production on land in the United States relies on intensive and toxic inputs.

These include animal feed and feed additives, antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals, and pesticides and other synthetic chemicals, which have irreparably damaged our farmlands and native ecosystems. These industrial production systems also allowed such consolidation of power, that just a few multinational corporations have that Monsanto and Dow patented and privatized seeds, a public good since time immemorial, and sue farmers who dare to save seeds. Likewise, Purdue and Tyson control the poultry supply, and maintain conditions of productions so horrific that they needed to bully states into passing laws (unconstitutionally) outlawing anyone from even photographing them.

As the current food revolution shows, if a generation ago the U.S. public had known the extent of harms that industrial agriculture would cause, we would have never allowed it to become the norm. So, why would we as a society ever allow the same decision forced upon us again, in creating another inherently destructive food production system that harms the environment and wildlife, makes less healthful food, and privatizes natural resources that should be held in public trust for the common good?

You may not even be aware, but our government has just paved the way for the same corporate takeover of our oceans by approving industrial aquaculture for the first time in U.S. waters. Unlike existing marine aquaculture operations in the U.S., the majority of which are nearshore operations for shellfish and shrimp, our government’s latest proposal would extend industrial fish farms in deep waters offshore for the production of large marine finfish. Specifically, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a division within the U.S. Department of Commerce, introduced new federal regulations permitting, for the first time, industrial aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico.

To be sure, there are ways to grow certain fish sustainably, just as there are ways to grow vegetables and raise livestock sustainably. But the scheme that NOAA just approved is anything but sustainable. That permitting scheme will allow private aquaculture facilities to operate in restricted access zones in the Gulf, upending traditional fishing rights and disrupting ocean ecosystems, including critical habitats for endangered species. The regulations allow fish farms to use pesticides, antibiotics, and other harmful inputs, and authorize 64 million pounds of fish to be grown annually, which will flood the marketplace to the detriment of wild fisheries. 

Like its land-based industrial counterparts, industrial aquaculture—the intensive production of fish and seafood—is also full of false promises. For example, industrial aquaculture is touted as a “solution” to the depletion of ocean fisheries that has resulted from decades of over-fishing. The reality is far from it: industrial-scale aquaculture actually increases pressure on wild fish populations. This is because almost all fish raised in industrial aquaculture facilities—such as salmon, tuna, amberjack, grouper, and snapper—are carnivorous, and thus must be fed large quantities of small ocean fish such as anchovies and sardines, processed into fish oil and fishmeal.

These “forage fish” are overharvested to supply enough aquaculture feed, removing a critical component of the ocean food web, depleting wild fish stock, further putting marine animal populations at risk. Worse, exhausting ocean forage fish stocks, industrial aquaculture has also turned to land-based fishmeal substitutes such as soy, novel ingredients never before found marine fishes’ diets.

The amount of fish produced by aquaculture facilities in state waters, such as in Maine, has so far been miniscule compared to the industrial-scale aquaculture that NOAA has just approved for federal waters. Industrial aquaculture in other countries has demonstrated that large-scale operations cause rapid privatization of ocean waters on an industrial scale, with far-reaching environmental, economic, and human health consequences. These consequences include: the escape of farmed fish from their containment, which threatens native wild fish populations; the spread of deadly diseases and parasites from farmed fish to wild fish; the overfishing of wild fish to feed carnivorous farmed fish; and the pollution of our ocean from the inputs and outputs of aquaculture facilities, including fish feed, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and fish feces.

The antibiotics, pesticides, and other chemicals that are heavily used to prevent disease and parasites in aquaculture facilities can accumulate in fish tissues that are then consumed by humans. Studies have also found farmed fish to be less healthful than their wild counterparts. Finally, industrial aquaculture is damaging because it puts generations of local fishing communities out of business, flooding markets and undercutting existing businesses and eliminating local jobs, as the industry consolidates.

Fortunately, this time we have a chance to fight this system before it takes root in American food production, to learn from our recent agricultural history, lest we irreparably repeat it in our oceans. Rather than having to foster a food revolution to take back control of how we produce our foods—which is the case with land-based industrial agriculture—with aquaculture, there is still time: we can fight to ensure at the outset our government manages and protect sour marine resources, rather than rubberstamps industrial methods that jeopardize our ocean ecosystems and the coastal communities that depend on them.

In order to stop the U.S. government from going down this path, Center for Food Safety, along with a broad array of stakeholders, including commercial and recreational fishing groups and conservation organizations, just filed a groundbreaking new lawsuit challenging the new regulations. The regulations are unlawful because, rather than wait for proper new Congressional authority for its decision, NOAA has tried to shoehorn aquaculture as “fishing” under existing law, when in reality the activities are very different and aquaculture creates novel risks no contemplated in existing law. The decision is also unlawful because NOAA violated several keystone environmental and fisheries protection laws in making it, including the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.

The long-term answer, though, must come from the American public. We must refuse to allow special interests to hoist the same shortsighted mistakes of industrial agriculture upon our oceans.

George Kimbrell is a senior attorney at the Center for Food Safety.

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