The Obama administration is laying the groundwork for permitting fish farming in federal waters in the Pacific Islands for the first time, part of its plan to double aquaculture production in the U.S. by 2020. While salmon and shellfish have been farmed in state waters for decades, NOAA wants to expand aquaculture further from shore, in order to meet growing demand for seafood as the amount of wild-caught fish has flatlined. The U.S. imports more than 90 percent of what is eaten here, half of which is farmed — a practice that’s resulted in a trade deficit of $11.2 billion. Aquaculture is practiced widely in countries like Norway and China, but has been slow to catch on in the U.S. because of concerns about ocean ecosystems and coastal economies. It took NOAA about 14 years to finalize a framework for the Gulf of Mexico, and when the rule was finally completed in January, the agency was sued by a dozen environmental advocacy and commercial fishing groups.

“Farmed species can escape and alter wild populations, and when you put a lot of fish together in one location, it can harbor disease and spread pollution,” said Marianne Cufone, executive director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition, which advocates for land-based aquaponics. The nonprofit is part of the suit filed against NOAA’s plan for the Gulf; Cufone said she expects a challenge to the Pacific program, if it’s finalized.

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