Along with its iconic whales, dolphins, tarpon and sea turtles, there could be something new in the warm, sky-blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico soon. A plan to open the Gulf to fish farming, also called aquaculture, could lead to net pens filled with millions of captive fish.
The plan faces strenuous opposition from a broad coalition of local fishermen, environmental advocates and coastal towns along the Gulf. They contend that establishing a fish farming industry there would imperil the health of local fish populations, damage the environment and put family fishing operations out of business. Fish farming is also currently illegal under long-standing regulations for the region.
For more than a year now, the decision to allow fish farms off the coasts of Florida, Louisiana and other Gulf states has remained up in the air, as government agencies and courts debate the merits, and legality, of doing so. The situation remains fraught, with one company moving ahead with plans to put net pens in the Gulf, despite not yet having permission to do so.
Though the government is planning further research on aquaculture’s impact on the region’s environment, case studies from places where fish farming is common provide insights into the dangers aquaculture can bring. Increased pollution from excess nutrients, escaped non-native fish and deadly pathogens have all been by-products of fish farming operations. For these reasons and more, opponents of aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico have been raising the alarm over net-pen plans for years. These are also the same reasons the state of Alaska has banned fish-farming in its coastal waters, which is where Vital Choice sources most of its seafood. (Read more: Why Are Alaskan Fish Stocks so Healthy?)
Fish Farming Controversy
The 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the primary piece of legislation governing fisheries in the U.S., doesn’t allow for open-water aquaculture operations in the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. currently allows fish farming in ponds or in tanks on land. Some states, like Washington and Hawaii, allow it in the ocean. (Read more: Washington Fish Farm Wants to Expand, Despite Law Ending Net Pens)
But in May of 2020, the Trump administration began making moves to open up the Gulf of Mexico to fish farming. In an executive order, President Trump instructed the federal government to begin removing regulatory restrictions on fish farming in federal waters.
Soon thereafter, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which includes the National Marine Fisheries Service, said it would designate some parts of the Gulf as “Aquaculture Opportunity Areas.” That means the organization would start researching whether these areas are fit for fish farming. Around the same time, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also said it would streamline the permitting process for aquaculture.
That move has been criticized by opponents as sidestepping public debate on the issue. “This action to ‘streamline’ permitting blocks meaningful and smart discussion on the potential ecological and economic risks of each new facility,” writes Marianne Cufone, director of Loyola University's Environmental Law Program, in an editorial in Baton Rouge newspaper The Advocate.
The government’s actions were soon met with legal roadblocks, too. In an August 2020 ruling, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans said the federal government doesn’t have the authority to create an entire industry not in the Magnuson-Stevens Act. That kind of action must come from Congress, the court said.
It didn’t take long for Congress to step in. In September, 2020, a group of senators introduced the Advancing the Quality and Understanding of American Aquaculture (AQUAA) Act, which would establish a regulatory system for aquaculture in U.S. waters, among other things. If passed, the act would open up the Gulf of Mexico and other places around the country to fish farming.
Mexico and Cuba, which also border the Gulf of Mexico, do not host major oceanic aquaculture industries. Though seafood is an important part of the diet in both Mexico and Cuba, it comes largely from wild-caught fish and other sea life.
That could be bad for a range of reasons, contends a coalition of fishermen, environmental advocates and food safety groups. For one, the AQUAA Act would let aquaculture companies effectively bypass government regulations meant to ensure ocean health, Rosanna Marie Neil, a co-author of a recent report on fish farming, told FoodTank. Under the new rules, fish farms could operate as close as three miles from shore, potentially imperiling wild fish populations, she says.
Other groups are worried that permits and grants for fish farming operations would go only to large corporations, forcing local fishermen out of the market. And, contrary to what fish farming companies say, opponents say such operations typically employ very few people, taking away jobs from local communities.
That’s on top of the many known environmental risks of fish farms. For years, researchers have shown that net pens let parasites like sea lice and other pathogens spread among captive fish. When those fish escape, like in Washington in 2017 when more than 200,000 non-native Atlantic salmon escaped their enclosure, they can pass those pathogens on to native fish. One study even found that farmed fish populations resulted in the evolution of more harmful fish bacteria (Sundberg et al., 2016).
Aquaculture operations also release contaminants into the water, like antibiotics and excess ammonia that causes toxic algae blooms called red tides. A 2012 study of Chilean fish farms tracked a worrying rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria in sediments near fish farms. The authors said the antibiotics were the result of drugs escaping into the water (Buschmann et al., 2012).
And, as we've previously written, many fish farmers feed their fish a less-healthy diet including cheap vegetable oils that result in a poorer ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids (Nichols et al., 2014). (Read more: Fish Farms Look to GMO Feed as Feeder Fish Supplies ‘Unsustainable’) That leads farmed fish to be less nutritious for us overall.
As a general rule, Vital Choice has determined that shellfish farming on ropes or piers is the safest form of open-ocean aquaculture when it comes to protecting the larger environment. Net-pens of finned fish have historically proved more problematic.
The Future of Gulf Coast Fishing
The broad opposition — and current illegality — hasn’t stopped one company from forging ahead in the Gulf. A Hawaii-based aquaculture company is moving forward with plans to begin net-pen farming off the coast of Sarasota, Florida. The company says it wants to begin testing operations to raise almaco jack, also known as longfin yellowtail, in submerged net pens as early as this year.
Nearby residents are worried about the impact the fish farming operation could have. “On behalf of its residents, businesses and visitors, the Venice City Council is very concerned about any activity that may exacerbate naturally occurring cycles of red tide or otherwise degrade water quality and marine wildlife,” wrote Venice, Florida mayor Ron Feinsod in a letter to the EPA, as reported by Tampa’s WFLA.
The company still hasn’t received permits to begin fish farming, though. Those would need to come from the federal government, which still doesn’t allow net-pen farming in the Gulf. That could change if the AQUAA Act passes Congress. The situation bears close watching.