By Neil Anthony Sims*
Here’s an interesting question with which to challenge your friends, colleagues and family: The U.S. has the largest EEZ* on the planet, at over 4.7 million square miles. At the same time, of all the nations on earth, America is the biggest importer of seafood by dollar value. And around half of the seafood consumed in the U.S. – and globally – is farmed. So then… how much seafood has been commercially cultured in U.S. Federal waters over the last year?
Answer: None. Zilch. Nada. Not a single pound. The same for the last ten years. The same as it has ever been.
One might imagine there was some urgency to remedying this imbalance (or what some might call, ‘this travesty’). How can we Americans reconcile our pious preachings of red-amber-green persnicketiness with the image of ourselves as the Jabba the Hutt of global seafood markets? At what point do we Americans take some moral and environmental responsibility for our hankering for more seafood, and start to actually grow some of it ourselves? The U.S. Federal government has correctly identified an important part of the solution – set-up of a regulatory framework for aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico (GoM) – but has inched towards this goal with the antithesis of alacrity; a haste that might be categorized as somewhere between glacial and tectonic.
One might remember (if one has lived so long!) that the original Aquaculture Fisheries Management Plan for the GoM was approved by the Gulf Regional Fisheries Management Council in January, 2009, and had been allowed to take effect by default, through inaction of the Secretary of Commerce. “Inaction” being the operative word, it took another 5 years before the actual Rules were drafted and released for public comment. In the intervening eon, NOAA held “Listening Sessions” around the country, to allow everyone to fully express themselves, and then drafted and adopted (after further public comment) Aquaculture Policies for both NOAA and the Department of Commerce. The full 569 page GoM Fisheries Management Plan (FMP) for Aquaculture, complete with the supportive Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, Regulatory Flexibility Analysis, Regulatory Impact Review, the Supplementary EIS (which assessed the potential impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the FMP … huh?), and links to NOAA’s Aquaculture Policy, can be found here:
There was, of course, opportunity for public comment on the Plan, and the EIS, and the Supplementary EIS. The Rules to give effect to the FMP were then posted for public comment, which closed on October 27th, 2014, but was later re-opened for an additional two weeks to allow for further public comment, just to ensure that everyone had their say. And had said it again. And again.
Links to the Rules and to the public comments can be found here: http://sero.nmfs.noaa.gov/sustainable_fisheries/gulf_fisheries/aquaculture/)
It is probably safe to say that by now, the public has probably said all that needed to be said (and lots that probably didn’t need to be said) about growing fish in Federal waters in the GoM. There is ample evidence (see the seminal synthesis by Price and Morris, 2013) that net pen culture, if sited correctly (in sufficiently deep water, with some reasonable current movement) has no significant impact on water quality or benthos beyond the immediate area of the net pens. Given this, and the UDD$11 billion seafood trade deficit in America, one has to wonder if anyone inside NOAA ever argued for greater urgency. (And if they did, what possible arguments were presented to defend the dissembling?).
Price and Morris (2013) is available at: http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2013/pdfs/2013_PriceandMorris_MarineCageCultureandTheEnvironment%285%29.pdf
The Ocean Conservancy has been oft-heard exhorting that we get open ocean aquaculture “right from the start”. That’s all well and good, but … when exactly can we start?
At least the Ocean Conservancy appears to better understand now that we must start somewhere, and start soon, and is not threatening a repeat of its earlier lawsuit that tried to halt the Gulf permit process.
Unfortunately, in their frenzied rush, NOAA still managed to get it wrong in one critical area: the duration of permits, and the criteria for their renewal.
The proposed Plan provides for an initial 10 year duration for an aquaculture permit, which can then be renewed every 5 years. This may sound like a long time, but why should a fish farm permit even be of limited tenure? NOAA elsewhere recognizes the value of enduring access rights in fisheries (i.e. Individual Fisheries Quotas, or IFQs) as a means of promoting long-term perspectives amongst participants. Short-term tenure over an automobile, or a house, or a fishery or an aquaculture permit will naturally lead to less care. So a narrow window of opportunity is not only a disincentive to investment in the industry, it will – more damagingly - skew investors and participants towards a “get in, grab-it-all, get out” mentality.
Patient investment should be instead encouraged. The Ocean Stewards Institute – our open ocean aquaculture trade association – very consciously and deliberately built our sobriquet around the key element of stewardship. As farmers on land feel a strong sense of ownership and investment (both financial and emotional) in the soil that they work, so we farmers at sea want a structure that encourages those same enduring attachments to the waters in which we work. It is better for our business, and better for our ocean’s future.
Compounding this misalignment of incentives, nowhere do these Rules indicate the criteria for permit renewal. NOAA expects investors to commit the significant funds needed to finance an offshore aquaculture operation (somewhere in the realm of USD$10 - 20 million, when we tote it up on the back of an envelope) with no rubric for assessing whether the permit should continue beyond the first 10 years. How would you manage any operation – be it a farm or a fishery or a forest - when you don’t know how your performance will be evaluated, or your continued access will be determined? How would you ever manage anything, when you do not know the criteria by which you will be judged? Any investment guide will tell you: uncertainty about the future leads to a focus on more immediate returns. Rarely is that in the best interests of anyone; and it is never in the best interests of the environment. Nowhere in the history of farming of animals has a short-term perspective been beneficial for the animals, or for the ecosystem in which they are raised.
One of the rationales offered in the FMP discussions is that permits may need to be cycled through, to allow for more equitable participation. Permits, it seems, may be rotated among applicants. Broader access to aquaculture permits might be a concern if you believed that the GoM should be constrained to, say, five farms, with a total annual production of 30,000 tons (as this FMP currently prescribes). But the GoM EEZ waters encompass some 273,000 sq. miles. The whole point of the FMP is to allow an industry to grow, to help feed our nation (and the world) with healthful seafood, and to create jobs in coastal communities and preserve working waterfronts. So… why would we not want fifteen farms, or fifty, producing maybe half-a-million tons of fish, or more? And if that is indeed a more desirable goal, then why hold out the threat of whipping the permit away from the first poor soul to start operating out there?
Ideally, the permits for aquaculture in the GoM would be in perpetuity, and cancelled only when justified, by a breach of permit provisions. There are already abundant, clearly defined and enforceable mechanisms for NOAA to cancel a permit for violation of the Rules. If, however, NOAA feels compelled for some reason to impose some limit, then a twenty year permit, renewable for twenty year extensions, would be the minimum requirement for establishing investor confidence in permit tenure, and in fostering a true sense of ownership -and therefore stewardship - amongst permit-holders. There should also then be some clearly defined rubric by which the permit renewal was evaluated each twenty years.
But … enough carping. Let’s be optimistic! Optimism is, after all, an essential prerequisite for open ocean aquaculture – or indeed, for any form of farming. While we may grouse about the long grind to get here, we should also heartily thank NOAA and the Gulf Council for at least sustaining the process through these years, and for finally reaching this important step in developing a more vibrant, healthy and healthful cultured seafood industry in the U.S. ‘Tis a wondrous thing that we might yet see, in our life-time fish grown in Federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico. It has been a fervent hope of many of us, for many years, and it has been long deferred. But hope – no matter how audacious – is sometimes fulfilled.
Neil Anthony Sims is co-Founder and CEO of Kampachi Farms, LLC, based in Kona, Hawaii, and in La Paz, Mexico. He’s also the founding President of the Ocean Stewards Institute, and sits on the Steering Committee for the Seriola-Cobia Aquaculture Dialogue and the Technical Advisory Group for the WWF-sponsored Aquaculture Stewardship Council.
Whas is the EEZ?
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines the EEZ* as follows:
Within the EEZ, the U.S. has: Sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring, exploiting, conserving and managing natural resources, whether living and non-living, of the seabed and subsoil and the superjacent waters and with regard to other activities for the economic exploitation and exploration of the zone, such as the production of energy from the water, currents and winds; Jurisdiction as provided for in international and domestic laws with regard to the establishment and use of artificial islands, installations, and structures, marine scientific research, and the protection and preservation of the marine environment; and Other rights and duties provided for under international and domestic laws.