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Offshore Aquaculture and the Future of Sustainable Seafood

An interview with Dr. Michael Rubino, director of the NOAA Fisheries Office of Aquaculture

By Rich Press, NOAA Fisheries Science Writer | Posted: January 11, 2016
Follow Rich on Twitter: @Rich_NOAAFish

Divers around the open-ocean aquaculture cage at the Cape Eleuthera Institute at Cape Eleuthera in the Bahamas.

headshot of Michael Rubino Dr. Michael Rubino, director of NOAA Fisheries Office of Aquaculture

For many people, aquaculture near the coast is a familiar sight—think of oyster and mussel farms in Washington State or salmon farms in Maine. But U.S. aquaculture will soon be expanding to the open ocean. With a new rule published today by NOAA Fisheries, federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico, stretching from 3 to 200 hundred miles offshore, will be open for the production of sustainable seafood.

Michael Rubino is the director of the NOAA Fisheries Office of Aquaculture and a former shrimp farmer. As he sees it, aquaculture has come a long way in the past two decades. And it’s about to go a whole lot further.

This new rule opens the Gulf of Mexico to offshore aquaculture production. Why is this important?

The potential for offshore aquaculture is tremendous. Today we grow most of our food on land, but we’re running out of water and arable land, so the question becomes: How are we going to produce the food that the world will need in the future? Aquaculture is sure to be part of the solution, and the United States is in a unique position. Every coastal nation controls economic activities in a zone reaching 200 miles from shore, and the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone is the largest in the world at 4.4 million square miles.

I grew up watching Jacques Cousteau on TV and he talked about how we need to learn to farm the oceans the same way we’ve learned to farm the land. I think these days he’d add that we need to learn to farm it sustainably, and that’s what we’re doing here at NOAA. We’re working with the aquaculture community to push the envelope on sustainable farming in the ocean, and this rule is a big step in that direction.

Speaking of satisfying the demand for food, over 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported. Will this rule help to reduce our dependence on seafood imports?

Ultimately, yes. Any future United States farms will be a source of domestically grown seafood that will be available for consumers here. And that’s a plus. Right now, if you go to a supermarket or a restaurant in the U.S., most of the shrimp, salmon, and oysters you’ll see there are farmed, and most of that is imported. U.S. consumers and businesses have benefitted from having a reliable year-round supply of imported seafood, but what’s missing is the local component. Local in terms of seafood supply, of jobs in our coastal communities, and also jobs in the agricultural heartland where the feed and equipment that goes into aquaculture are produced. By importing so much seafood we’re basically exporting those jobs. If we produce more of our seafood domestically, that will complement our wild capture fisheries, it will keep jobs in our communities, and it will keep our working waterfronts alive.

One of our missions here at NOAA Fisheries is to promote sustainable fisheries. What does producing more domestic seafood mean in terms of sustainability?

Domestic seafood—whether it’s wild or farmed—is produced under stringent laws and regulations that protect the environment and ensure the sustainability of our fisheries. So producing more of our seafood here in the U.S. means that consumers will have more sustainable choices.

Some people might be concerned about potential pollution of ocean habitats and effects on wild fish populations. What’s included in this rule to address these issues?

That’s a great question because any human activity can be done well or poorly. In aquaculture we’ve learned a lot in the past 20 years about how to do things well. I have the privilege of visiting fish farmers throughout the country and in Maine for instance, salmon farming is going through a revival in part because of responsible practices they’ve developed. Their locations are properly sited in terms of water quality, their feeds are efficient in that they don’t sink to the bottom, they vaccinate the fish instead of using antibiotics, they’ve had few if any escapes in recent years, and they even fallow between crops like land-based famers to allow the bottom to recuperate. So we’ve made a lot of progress in terms of environmentally friendly seafood farming.

The Gulf of Mexico rule builds on what we’ve learned over the decades about producing seafood in a responsible and sustainable way. It includes a comprehensive suite of environmental regulations that will be enforced by NOAA Fisheries, the Environmental Protection Agency, and others. Those regulations require that water quality be maintained, that endangered species are protected, and that only species native to the area are farmed.  And the permits require operators to monitor, report, and address any negative impacts.

You’ve been working in aquaculture for a long time, both here at NOAA and also as a shrimp farmer, so you have a long view of aquaculture development. If you can envision for me, say 20 years from now, what will aquaculture look like in this country?

It’s hard to say but one way to answer that is to look at what’s happening now. Last January a number of us from NOAA Fisheries went to the Northeast Aquaculture Conference in Portland, Maine. It took place in the middle of a snowstorm, and still there were 600 people in the room all wanting to do aquaculture. But even more amazing, as we looked out over the room, we realized that half the people there were under the age of 40, and a lot of them were the sons and daughters of fishermen or came from working seafood families. They don’t want to work in a cubicle or a bank. They want to stay on the water. They know boats, they know equipment, they know markets, and they’re becoming oyster and seaweed and fish farmers.

That’s an exciting development that I think we’ll be seeing more of in the future. Government has an important role to play in scientific research and environmental protection, but at the end of the day it’s people like the ones I met at that conference that are going to make this happen. We’re just setting the stage.