By Aaron A. McNevin*
I answered that my institution sees the greatest environmental threats from aquaculture outside of the country. I went on to explain that I am not certain that US officials and producers would be pleased with the notion of a targeted effort by environmentalists to focus on US aquaculture.
Of course, I understand the sentiments expressed, there is opportunity for aquaculture expansion in the US and in some respects those within the country may see the environmentalists acknowledging companies outside more than inside. Perhaps it is that the US aquaculture sector is subject to so much regulation that environmentalists don’t see much value in putting resources towards raising the bar further? Perhaps the production volume of aquaculture is not great enough to warrant greater attention? Or is it simply that cost structures in other countries favor aquaculture expansion there rather than in the US making aquaculture products cheaper?
Consumers want cheap seafood, and quite frankly, there is less evidence that food safety, human rights, labor rights or environmental issues culminate to something of equal priority to consumers. Yes, there are the pockets with their pocket guides. There are the organic-loving consumers and their supporters that have sought to transpose standards for agriculture on top of aquaculture so consumers can have the whole menu option of terrestrial and aquatic foods with the claim of “wholesomeness,” “sustainable,” “local,” or all of these attributes commonly perceived to describe organic foods. But these are the minorities. The majority of Americans are too busy with daily life, family and trying to make ends meet to spend time trying to understand what aquaculture is and how its products are produced.
Recently, I attended a meeting with several representatives of fast food restaurants. One was being applauded for the commitment to sell only certified fisheries in their restaurants. When asked why they don’t display or convey this commitment to their customers, the answer is that their customers are not asking for it and they don’t want to have to mobilize an outreach force to attempt to explain to consumers why they did what they did and what the implications are.
The environmentalists tend to target the elite minority of consumers in their communications and campaigns because that is who pays attention. The media outlets that pick up much of the NGO work on aquaculture are viewed by that small pocket of consumers, industry (through trade publications) and some academics.
So what would raise the consciousness of the average consumer? Perhaps the various grass roots groups and other organizations promoting Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) efforts by should consider what has been accomplished? By getting aquaculture out of the consumer’s line of sight, we have disconnected their understanding what aquaculture is and what the tradeoffs and impacts are in its production. We have given the elite the wherewithal to dictate what aquaculture is to those that can’t experience or see it themselves. Aquaculture is food production that has impacts and these impacts should be realized by those that purchase and consume these products as they are the reason for the production and the consequences of production.
There is a need to bring some ownership and responsibility for the food we eat. Out of sight and out of mind is the effect of the NIMBY movement, and this has led to the importation of aquaculture’s products and the exportation of its impacts. Would reversing this trend make consumers in the US more cognizant of what aquaculture is and what it isn’t? It is unclear - there are areas in the US that are in very bad shape environmentally or economically for reasons other than aquaculture and those areas are still, in large part, disregarded by the greater US society. Nevertheless, these pockets of poverty and degraded ecosystems are much more common in the regions that we import aquaculture from now. Thus, maybe it is the time to think more seriously about cage farming off the coasts of California and Florida? Maybe it is time to bring the shrimp farms back to Texas? Maybe offshore aquaculture is a better solution than converting more land to ponds? After all, these systems will have impacts whether here or overseas so why not increase aquaculture production in the US? We will be, at minimum, damaging the environment equally but only in a different part of the world.
Staunch proponents of aquaculture expansion in the US have spent far more time than I cataloguing the justifications for this national growth. I don’t claim to know the economic differences in labor, equipment, maintenance, taxes and regulatory oversight. I would still consider these to be challenges that other countries could outcompete the US on, but perhaps not if conditions are favorable.
From an environmental perspective, an impact is an impact in this country or not. The food we eat comes at a monetary and environmental cost and we need to start paying for both of these as US consumers. What better way to begin to pay for the environmental costs than to bring the impacts back to the forefront of the US consumer?
Not In My Backyard is not a means to reduce impact – the impacts still occur, and in some ways these impacts are likely amplified in some countries that either have weaker laws or little capacity for enforcement. My inner In My Backyard (IMBY) sentiments are perhaps aligned with those that seek aquaculture renewal and regrowth in the US, but likely not for precisely the same reasons. If the US were to produce a larger amount of aquaculture, I would suspect that those that want more attention from NGOs would get it, so be careful what you ask for.
Dr. Aaron McNevin directs the aquaculture program at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). He received his MS and PhD from Auburn University in Water and Aquatic Soil Chemistry. Aaron has lived and worked in Indonesia, Thailand and Madagascar and currently manages various projects throughout the developing world. He previously worked as a professor of fisheries science, and is the co-author of the book Aquaculture, Resource Use, and the Environment.
The IMBY Inside
At a recent meeting with US government officials, I was asked, “why don’t you work more in the US”?
By Aaron A. McNevin*