Fish farming has been positioned by its boosters as a sustainable alternative to wild-caught seafood and an economic driver that would put our oceans to work. So far, restrictions on where aquaculture operations can be located have kept the U.S. industry relatively small. In 2016, domestic aquaculture in state-controlled waters accounted for about $1.6 billion worth of seafood, or about 20 percent of the country’s seafood production.
But the biggest potential home for aquaculture, federally controlled ocean waters, has so far been off limits. States control up to three miles offshore from their coastlines, but between three and 200 miles falls under federal control. Attempts to introduce aquaculture in federal waters have so far been stymied by concerns about aquaculture’s impact on ocean ecosystems and wild fisheries.
Now the tide could be turning. On Aug. 30, EPA issued a draft permit for a pilot aquaculture project in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida. The project, despite its small scale, would be a watershed moment in the debate surrounding ocean aquaculture, which has divided environmental groups and pitted fishermen who catch wild fish against those who farm. It is also the latest chapter in a long battle about which agency should regulate ocean aquaculture.