It’s been a year like no other…for so many, and particularly seafood businesses. When the pandemic hit, restaurant closures and months-long lockdowns rocked the entire food system. We watched our fishing friends and colleagues suffer through the drop in consumer demand as restaurants sat empty and prices fell to an all-time low. This, while grappling with increasing long-term impacts to fisheries resulting from a changing climate.
Now our government is serving up new threats to the waters and environment we rely on, and we just can’t handle any more losses. Last year, the Trump administration issued an executive order authorizing federal agencies to rush the development of industrial finfish aquaculture facilities offshore all around the country, with specific emphasis on the West Coast and Gulf of Mexico.
The Biden administration is seemingly continuing this program. For instance, NOAA, the agency tasked with regulating U.S. fisheries, started building the infrastructure for a new program to manage industrial finfish aquaculture in the Pacific Islands by rushing an environmental assessment of the region.
These facilities use huge net pens to raise fish in marine waters. Hundreds of thousands of fish eat and excrete while trapped in the cages — one proposed facility off the coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico even hopes to someday cram up to 2 million fish into its pens. Fish feed and waste — as well as antibiotics and other chemicals used in the facilities — leak into the surrounding waters, contributing to toxic algal blooms and red tides. Adding to that, the net pens often allow larger farmed fish to escape into the wild, and disrupt and change ecosystems by outcompeting wild fish for food, habitat or mates, and spreading diseases and parasites to the wild fish we catch and bring to our tables.
As two people who have worked in the fishing industry our whole lives, we are painfully aware that the rapid advancement of industrial aquaculture facilities jeopardizes our jobs, livelihoods, and communities.
Industrial aquaculture development not only threatens us as individual fishermen, it also puts our communities at risk. In coastal regions such as ours, fishing is the basis of the economy: Our catch is used to feed families, supply our restaurants and fill local markets. Fishing also supports other local industries —boat repair, equipment purchasing, ice, fuel and more — as the money we make is spent in our community. If aquaculture fish take over our markets and pollute our waters, fishing and coastal communities will feel the losses.
In both of our states, federal agencies are permitting risky new facilities to move forward, despite overwhelming local opposition. The Velella Epsilon and Pacific Ocean AquaFarms facilities are only a few steps away from final approval. Once approved, they will be used to justify further development. Neil Sims, CEO of Ocean Era, spells corporate aquaculture intentions out, loud and clear: “By blazing this trail through the permitting process, we want to build an industry. We don’t want to just be one farm out there.”
These corporations stand to gain millions of dollars from industrial development, but that profit won’t be invested in our communities. Instead, industrial facilities may force local commercial fishermen out of business.
Fishing and coastal communities need to speak up, and make sure we’re heard at all levels of government, from Congress to the White House. We recently joined a policy discussion about how our fisheries are affected by climate change, and our insight was critical. Independent commercial fishermen especially can understand the importance of preserving a healthy ocean environment and supporting a local, blue economy.
With our livelihoods on the line, we must have a seat at the table and urge the federal government to stop rushing the development of risky and unnecessary aquaculture facilities, and instead focus on policies that support the small business owners and fishermen who got us through the pandemic. For starters, Congress can support the Keep Finfish Free Act, and President Biden can take swift and meaningful action to reverse the outcomes of the damaging 2020 executive order.
After a devastating year full of uncertainty, fishermen need support and consistency from the federal government — not a haphazard approach to developing another industry that would hurt small business owners. We need our government to pay attention to all we have lost and all the challenges we are still facing. We need investment in local fishing communities and solutions to help grapple with the effects of climate change.
We hope Congress and the Biden administration will start down this path by supporting the Keep Finfish Free Act, and mobilizing other support urgently needed by our coastal communities.
Marine Alliances Consulting
San Diego, Calif.
Florida Commercial Watermen’s Conservation