One is a National Shellfish Initiative that aims to boost commercial shellfish production. The other will implement the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Plan for Aquaculture (http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/ocs/mafac/meetings/2008_11/docs/aquaculture_ph_updated_8_28.pdf) — which includes the regulatory infrastructure needed for developing open-ocean aquaculture in the gulf.
Officials say the aquaculture policies will position the United States to help meet growing global seafood demand, create jobs in coastal communities and restore vital ecosystems. They also aspire to create trade opportunities and restore the nation’s $9 billion seafood trade imbalance.
We import 84 percent of our seafood, the commerce department says, with foreign aquaculture accounting for about half of it. U.S. aquaculture on the other hand, supplies about five percent of domestic seafood consumption. According to Mike Rubino, manager of NMFS’ aquaculture program, shellfish accounts for 80 percent of U.S. commercial marine aquaculture.
Encouraging aquaculture development in the United States, officials add, will also complement commercial fisheries and protect wild-caught species and the marine environment.
But will encouraging aquaculture development provide all the benefits being touted?
Rubino said Thursday that in the United States, the bulk of shellfish aquaculture businesses are small to medium-sized companies developed by fishing industry-related families. The shellfish initiative will build on that base, he said, and on opportunities for those existing businesses.
Great — everybody loves programs that create jobs (especially politicians up for re-election in a struggling economy). However, it’s difficult to reconcile NOAA’s enthusiasm for creating aquaculture jobs with its championing of fisheries management policies that thin fleets, eliminate fishing jobs and have a negative effect upon the economies and industry-related businesses of coastal communities.
Then there’s the prospect of open-ocean aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico. Under the aquaculture management plan, offshore farm operations can raise all species native to the region except shrimp and corals.
There’s been greater opposition to finfish aquaculture, which the plan says could produce up to 64 million pounds annually. Fishermen and environmental groups are concerned about aquaculture’s potential impact upon wild stocks and the marine environment.
It might be a moot point, given the expense of developing offshore fish farms. Start-up costs are estimated to be between $5 million and $10 million.
A U.S. aquaculture program could co-exist with and (gasp!) even benefit wild-caught fisheries — if it’s done right. It might help boost domestic seafood consumption and move it north of the 16 pounds per capita mark that’s been the norm for years.
But fishermen likely will want to know more about finfish aquaculture development in the Gulf of Mexico before giving their support. After all, a cynical fisherman might wonder how the same agency that’s done such a crackerjack job of promoting development of the U.S. fishing industry will do any better at promoting aquaculture.