A bill newly introduced in the Senate would establish a federal regulatory system for offshore aquaculture, opening a pathway to large-scale fishing farming in the U.S. exclusive economic zone.

Sponsored by Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), bill S-4723 would clear the way for the Department of Commerce in its drive to create new aquaculture zones – an effort so far stymied by the federal courts.

In an Aug. 3 decision, the Fifth Court of Appeals upheld a 2018 lower court ruling that the Department of Commerce and NMFS lack legal authority to issue permits for aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico.

In its 2-1 decision, the appeals panel found in favor of critics who argued the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management grants the agency no power to permit fish farming in federal waters.

“If anyone is to expand the 40-year-old Magnuson-Stevens Act to reach aquaculture for the first time, it must be Congress,” according to the court’s opinion.

The so-called AQUAA Act rises to that challenge, directing the Commerce Department to undertake a six-month program to develop a new body of regulations and seek input from states, tribes and other stakeholders.

The bill’s opening language declares an intent to “support development of a sustainable marine aquaculture industry in the United States and enhance access to investment capital…to complement sustainable fisheries and ecosystem management.”

Another goal is to “clarify the federal regulatory regime for sustainable offshore aquaculture and safeguard the marine environment, wild fish stocks and or coastal communities.”

The bill is being referred to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. An alliance of fishing, environmental and food activists that successfully blocked Gulf of Mexico plans in court was fast out of the blocks to oppose the bill.

“For decades, various administrations have attempted to push offshore marine finfish aquaculture—through numerous failed federal bills, agencies overreaching authority to make regulations and most recently, through executive orders,” according to a statement from the Don’t Cage Our Ocean Coalition. "Forceful public opposition and courts have prevented the industry from developing since the 1980s."

“Industrial finfish aquaculture facilities harm wild ecosystems, risk coastal economies and threaten local fishermen’s livelihoods,” said Rosanna Marie Neil, policy counsel for the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, one of the coalition groups. “Instead of supporting the corporate takeover of our oceans, lawmakers should safeguard the economic livelihoods of fishermen and coastal residents who are already struggling and would be disproportionately harmed by industrial aquaculture.”

In a joint statement the Senate sponsors and Stronger America Through Seafood, an industry campaign in support of federal aquaculture planning, said there is now strong bipartisan support for it.

“The expansion of domestic offshore aquaculture is a win-win for American communities nationwide,” said Bill DiMento, president of SATS and vice president of Corporate Sustainability and Government Affairs at High Liner Foods. “Growth of the American aquaculture industry would create new jobs, provide new business opportunities and grow our economy as our country recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of the opportunities that aquaculture can provide American communities, there is growing bipartisan support and momentum for federal action on aquaculture.”

“Hawaii leads the nation in modern and traditional aquaculture practices,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, whose home state is base for Ocean Era, the company that wants to pioneer fish farming in the Gulf of Mexico EEZ off Florida’s west coast. “With this bipartisan bill, we can expand aquaculture opportunities, opening suitable federal waters for responsible growers. It will create new jobs, spur economic growth in our coastal communities, and ensure our oceans are managed sustainably now and in the future."

The Environmental Defense Fund said the bill represents significant progress in planning how offshore aquaculture could work – with caveats.

“While the bill addresses the issues surrounding offshore aquaculture, it lacks substantive standards regarding how to make decisions about those issues. In the absence of such standards that would ensure the environmental and economic sustainability of the burgeoning industry, the decisions would instead be left to agency discretion,” said Eric Schwaab, a senior vice president with the group.

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Associate Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for more than 30 years and a 25-year field editor for National Fisherman before joining our Commercial Marine editorial staff in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.

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