An open-ocean fish farm in Hawaii. 

An open-ocean fish farm in Hawaii.  Courtesy of Bryce Groark

Can Deepwater Aquaculture Avoid the Pitfalls of Coastal Fish Farms?

Near-shore fish farms have created a host of environmental problems. Now, U.S. aquaculture advocates – backed by mainstream conservation groups – are saying that locating well-run operations out in the ocean could produce sustainable food and protect wild stocks from overfishing.  

Donna Lanzetta has a big idea: She wants to grow striped bass on a deepwater fish farm, about eight miles off the coast of Southampton, Long Island, where she was born and raised.

A lawyer who knows real estate and politics, Lanzetta has garnered the support of local and state officials. Marine scientists and aquaculture experts advise her startup, which is called Manna Fish Farms. She has purchased an automated feed system that can be operated from shore, and plans to rely on hatchlings that are identical to wild striped bass, to ease concerns about escapes.

Now all she needs to do is raise a couple of million dollars, persuade a half-dozen or so federal agencies to grant her a permit, and, quite possibly, get an act of Congress to exempt her business from a law, aimed at protecting wild fish stocks, that makes it a crime to possess striped bass in federal waters.

“It’s not easy to be blazing the trail,” says Lanzetta.

Nothing is easy about developing aquaculture projects in U.S. federal waters, which cover the area between three and 200 miles offshore. U.S. fish farmers grow seafood in lakes, ponds, tanks, and coastal waters regulated by states, but except for a handful of shellfish farms, they don’t raise fish farther out in the oceans. 

Open-ocean aquaculture has advantages over fish farms in bays and estuaries, which have fouled coastal ecosystems. 

That’s unfortunate, some environmentalists say, because open-ocean aquaculture has decided advantages over fish farms in bays and estuaries, which have caused significant environmental problems as concentrations of fish waste and sea lice foul near-shore ecosystems. And today, offshore aquaculture supporters point out, data-rich geographic information systems enable companies and regulators to make smarter decisions about where to locate fish farms, so that stronger currents and deeper waters can dilute and wash away waste and pollution. Offshore projects are also less likely to provoke opposition from shoreline property owners. (Lanzetta’s farm, for example, will not be visible from the shore.)

Lanzetta is one of a very few would-be ocean-aquaculture pioneers in the United States. Don Kent, the president of the Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute in San Diego, has been trying for a decade to develop a fish farm that is now planned for a site four miles from the southern California coast. Marine biologist Neil Anthony Sims, the co-founder of an aquaculture startup called Kampachi Farms, plans to run a short-term pilot project, growing yellowtail 30 miles off the coast of southwest Florida.

They all face daunting obstacles. Regulatory uncertainty is perhaps the biggest: A half dozen or so federal agencies — including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Navy, the Coast Guard, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — share permitting responsibilities. “A fearsome Gordian knot of overlapping jurisdictions and responsibilities” is how Sims describes it. 

There are also logistical challenges. Open-ocean aquaculture pens must operate in rougher waters than their near-shore counterparts, increasing the risks of fish escapes — a concern among some biologists who fear that escaping Atlantic salmon, for example, might compete for food and spawning grounds with Pacific salmon. Locating a fish farm offshore is also more expensive, although ocean farms growing cobia and striped bass are currently operating successfully in Panama and Mexico.

Divers around a deepwater aquaculture cage at the Cape Eleuthera Institute in The Bahamas. 

Divers around a deepwater aquaculture cage at the Cape Eleuthera Institute in The Bahamas.  Courtesy of Kelly Martin & NOAA

While some critics — including recreational and commercial fishermen, inland aquaculture firms, and activist environmental groups — strongly oppose open-ocean aquaculture, big, mainstream, more business-friendly environmental nonprofits are now working with governments and businesses around the world to support responsible aquaculture. They see fish farming as a way to deliver healthy protein to a growing global population, while also protecting wild fish stocks from overfishing. 

“Aquaculture, when done properly, can be a major tool for conservation,” says Jerry Schubel, an oceanographer who is president of the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California. “It can conserve wild stocks. It can conserve habitat. We have a great opportunity to show the rest of the world how it can be done in a sustainable way.”

WWF has long supported sustainable aquaculture, helping to start a standard-setting organization called the Aquaculture Stewardship Council. Seven years ago, Conservation International released a comprehensive global study of fish farming called Blue Frontiers that spotlighted problems with poorly run fish farms, but concluded that aquaculture “has clear advantages over other types of animal source food production for human consumption.” The Nature Conservancy began an aquaculture program two years ago; it is tracking the impact of shellfish and eelgrass farms in Chesapeake Bay and Tomales Bay, California, that have the potential to restore marine ecosystems.

“The shellfish and the [eelgrass] are a gateway,” says Robert Jones, the global lead for aquaculture at The Nature Conservancy. “We’re looking to get involved with finfish… It’s a huge opportunity for the planet, and it’s also a huge challenge.”

Adds Schubel, “We have the science, the technology, the ocean waters — the largest exclusive economic zone of any country in the world — and we have the demand. No matter how you look at it, the U.S. should get involved in marine aquaculture.”

Advocates argue that it’s better to grow fish responsibly, close to home, than to import seafood from places where regulations are weak.

The environmental community, though, remains divided. Oceana, which works to preserve oceans, has no position on U.S. offshore aquaculture, but it has campaigned against farmed salmon from Chile, saying Chile’s salmon farmers are overusing antibiotics, among other things. Food and Water Watch, a Washington-based non-profit, says fish farms are “generally big, dirty and dangerous, just like factory farming on land.” It argues that private companies should not be allowed “to exploit our public resource for their financial benefit.”

When NOAA put forth a plan to streamline the permitting process for ocean aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico in 2016, Food and Water Watch, the Center for Food Safety, and groups of commercial and recreational fishers in the Gulf filed suit. “Look at salmon farming anywhere on the planet,” says Marianne Cufone, the founder of the Recirculating Farms Coalition, which represents small-scale fish farms that recycle their water. “It has been disastrous, with diseases, escapes, and pollution.”

Even staunch supporters of U.S. offshore aquaculture don’t defend practices elsewhere. To the contrary, they argue that it’s better to grow fish responsibly, close to home, than to import seafood from places where regulations are weak or poorly enforced. China, Indonesia, India, Vietnam, and the Philippines are the world’s biggest aquaculture producers, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Administration. Bangladesh alone produces four times more farmed seafood than the U.S.

Manna Fish Farms hopes to use this automated feed device at the deepwater fish farm it is planning off Long Island, New York. 

Manna Fish Farms hopes to use this automated feed device at the deepwater fish farm it is planning off Long Island, New York.  Courtesy of Donna Lanzetta

“If you did more aquaculture in the U.S., it could be better regulated and it would shorten the supply chain, bringing it close to major cities,” says Jones. The U.S. currently imports about 90 percent of its seafood, creating a so-called seafood trade deficit estimated at more than $14 billion.

Nor do offshore aquaculture advocates deny that coastal aquaculture has caused an array of environmental woes. Near-shore fish-farming operations can concentrate parasites and disease, as salmon infested with sea lice have done in Norway, Chile, and elsewhere, posing a risk to young wild salmon. When stocking densities are too high, fish farms pollute waters with fecal matter and uneaten food. They also use pesticides and antibiotics that may contribute to bacterial resistance that threatens human health. Finally, because fish being raised on farms are often fed fish meal and fish oil derived from small wild fish like menhaden and anchovies, there’s a risk that aquaculture could lead to overfishing of forage fish stocks and disrupt the food chain of the entire marine ecosystem.

Aquaculture proponents maintain, however, that those problems are manageable — especially in offshore aquaculture operations — and, in fact, are being well managed in the U.S. “Low use of fishmeal in feeds, minimal use of antibiotics, well-managed nutrient effluents, and minimal escapes are actually the norm in the U.S., not the exception,” says Mike Rust, science coordinator for the aquaculture office at NOAA. On the issue of fish feed, for example, fish farmers are increasingly turning to vegetarian diets, supplemented with fish oil. A Silicon Valley startup called Calysta has developed a substitute for fishmeal made from methane gas that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere.

Offshore, where pens are battered by stronger currents, escapes remain a concern. Over the years, non-native farmed fish, particularly Atlantic salmon being raised in the Pacific, have escaped into rivers and oceans in Chile and British Columbia. Just last summer, an estimated 160,000 salmon escaped into Puget Sound near Seattle, renewing concerns that they could crowd spawning grounds and compete with wild salmon for food. But state and federal regulators say that such releases do not cause lasting damage  because the Atlantic salmon can’t effectively compete with native species. Despite the long-standing concerns about negative impacts from escapes, few farmed salmon have been able to survive in the wild, scientists say.

Scientists have found that farming fish is better for the climate than raising land-based animals, though the data is squishy.

The Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) and the Global Aquaculture Alliance were formed to reward farmers who practice responsible fish farming. Their efforts seem to be paying off: The ASC now certifies nearly 25 percent of global salmon production, up from just 7 percent in 2015, its standards guiding major U.S. retailers such as Walmart and Whole Foods Market. “These standards, if met, will give us not just an expansion of responsibility, but an expansion of our food supply,” says Scott Nichols, an ASC board member.

Scientists also have found that farming fish is better for the climate than raising land-based animals. The data is squishy, but the logic is solid: Fish are much better than cows, pigs, and chickens at converting feed into food because they are cold-blooded and don’t need to use energy to warm themselves, don’t need to fight gravity, and have smaller skeletons. In 2014, Oxford University scientists examined the diets of about 55,000 Britons and found that a pescatarian diet, consisting of fish and vegetables but no meat, generated half the carbon footprint of a diet heavy in meat. Vegetarians did even better, of course.

What’s more, unlike land animals, fish don’t need to be fed fresh water, notes Steve Gaines, the dean of the School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara and an aquaculture expert.  “Even if we look at just average practices in aquaculture today, not best practices, they’re substantially better than most forms of land-based agricultural production,” says Gaines. “If you look at best practices in aquaculture, there’s nothing comparable in terms of land-based meat production that has such a low level of environmental impacts.”

Meanwhile, those seeking to pioneer offshore aquaculture in the U.S. are moving ahead. Kent, who is seeking to build the fish farm off the California coast, has been at it for a decade, and says his investors — they once included an aquaculture investment fund backed by the Walton family — have spent more than $1 million. Sims’ Kampachi Farms was recently awarded a $139,000 federal grant to demonstrate aquaculture off the Florida coast. “If the results… are favorable, then we would also hope to pursue a commercial aquaculture permit,” he says.

As for Manna Fish Farm, Lanzetta’s company, it has secured about $300,000 in grants from the state of New York and local government to support its development. She’s hoping to secure the necessary permits this year, deploy equipment next year, get fish onto the site in the spring, and reap her first harvest by the end of 2019.