The strength of global supply chains has recently come into question as Chinese exports decreased in February due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Crises like this highlight the potential negative impacts of relying on global trade for vital goods, including seafood.
The United States currently imports over 80% of its edible seafood while per capita fish consumption continues to grow rapidly. Commercial fishing alone cannot sustainably keep up with this demand. As a result, the prevalent method of seafood production has gradually shifted from wild-caught to aquacultured, rising from 14% in 1986 to 53% in 2016. Nevertheless, the majority of American consumed seafood is sourced from foreign fish markets.
The establishment of a closely monitored and regulated offshore aquaculture program is an important step towards U.S. fish production becoming economically self-sufficient and sustainable. In order to build a productive aquaculture program with minimized negative impacts on the surrounding ecosystem, accurate data must be collected. Short-term, small-scale pilot projects would provide researchers and regulators with real world data that would be uniquely valuable in forming policy recommendations in the future.
One pilot project that has been under the spotlight in the Gulf of Mexico is the proposed project from the Hawaii-based Kampachi Farms LLC. The project proposes a small farm in federal waters 45 miles southwest of Sarasota that would raise 20,000 Almaco Jack for human consumption in 12 months. This farm will utilize an aquaculture pen, which allows the fish to live in their natural environment while simultaneously keeping them from escaping. Because this pen allows for seawater exchange with the environment, South Florida residents and officials have voiced concerns regarding contamination from fish waste and mortality events. Many worry that added nitrogen and phosphorus would increase the likelihood of Red Tide events. However, because of its small scale, strict adherence to EPA ocean discharge criteria and close monitoring by researchers, this pilot project should mitigate any potential contamination impact.
The results of small-scale projects like Kampachi Farms are not only integral to understanding the possible environmental impact of such a system but also to the building of a sustainable and successful aquaculture system that can be deployed large-scale within United States federal waters. Building a productive aquaculture program would significantly reduce our dependence on foreign fish protein produced in countries with less sustainable practices, open regional job opportunities and bolster the U.S. economy.
Madison Schwaab is a marine resource assessment graduate student at the USF College of Marine Science, where she studies toxicology of pelagic fishes in the Gulf of Mexico.