Insights:

U.S. Aquaculture Gets Bipartisan Boost from Washington

By David Kelly

Good news has been hard to come by the last few months amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but the United States aquaculture industry received some two weeks ago.

On May 7 the White House issued an executive order aimed at “removing outdated and unnecessarily burdensome regulations” that have long hampered aquaculture efforts in the U.S.

The executive order comes just two months after the re-introduction of the bipartisan AQUAA Act in Congress in March. So suddenly it feels like there’s finally a legitimate appetite – pun intended – for open ocean aquaculture here.

As a member of Stronger America Through Seafood’s board of directors, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say “it’s about time” – even if there’s still more work to be done.  

We Should Eat Our Own

People in the United States love seafood. But we import 90 percent of the total we consume each year, more than any other country.

While the brave men and women in our resilient fishing industry continue to provide plenty of protein – and even entertainment via popular TV shows like Deadliest Catch – open ocean aquaculture has never really taken off here.

Globally, that makes us an outlier. Since 1986 wild caught seafood has essentially flatlined worldwide while aquaculture production has skyrocketed, nearly drawing even with fishing in terms of annual tons produced.  

But not in the U.S. Despite 12,380 miles of ocean coastline – the ninth-longest in the world – we rank just 17th in the world in aquaculture production.  

The Trump Administration’s executive order and the AQUAA Act will help change that by streamlining the regulatory framework and making it easier to launch new aquaculture ventures in U.S. waters.  

The White House’s order:

  • Makes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration the lead agency for all aquaculture projects in federal waters and gives the agency eight months to develop a single guidance document that explains all federal regulatory requirements.
  • Mandates that any required environmental reviews and authorizations be completed within two years.
  • Tasks the Army Corps of Engineers with developing a proposed nationwide permit authorizing finfish aquaculture within the United States’ exclusive economic zone. 
  • Tasks the Commerce Department with identifying at least two Aquaculture Opportunity Areas within the next year and having them go through a full environmental review by 2023. And then repeating the process in each of the next four years for a total of 10 areas by 2027.

First-hand Experience

It’s hard to overstate how important these actions will be for existing fish farmers, aquaculture entrepreneurs and their investors.  

Innovasea has been working with several companies interested in open ocean aquaculture in the U.S., many of them start-ups. We assist them with engineering and consulting work, including site and species selection, while also helping them navigate the country’s byzantine permitting process. 

Many of these entrepreneurs possess the same gusto and imagination as their Silicon Valley counterparts, but the U.S. has yet to produce the Tesla or Uber of aquaculture.

The reason? Primarily the country’s erratic and intimidating regulatory landscape, which currently involves an alphabet soup of state and federal agencies. It’s confusing, time-consuming and expensive, with up-front administrative costs for a project capable of creeping into the seven figure range.  

Without a well-defined regulatory process and timeline, many investors simply can’t justify or endure that kind of risk. The end result is that innovative, viable projects that would create jobs and produce locally-grown seafood often wither and die before they even get started.

Deeper Waters = Healthier Fish

Did you know there isn’t a single commercial fish farm operating in federal waters today? It’s not because it’s not a viable business. As the world leader in open ocean aquaculture solutions, Innovasea is involved in a number of productive aquaculture projects across the globe – including in state waters off the coast of Hawaii.

Our submersible fish pens are designed and built to be rugged enough to withstand the rigors of harsh ocean environments – and have proved it by surviving numerous hurricanes and typhoons.  

But our open ocean aquaculture solutions go beyond just equipment and infrastructure. Just as important is the leading-edge technology we’re developing to help re-imagine aquaculture for the 21st century. Remote sensing and monitoring, automated feeding systems, the use of artificial intelligence and cloud computing are combining to deliver precision aquaculture to operators anywhere in the world, 24/7.

While working in the open ocean will never be described as a cakewalk, it does provide a healthier, more natural environment for fish to grow with less risk of parasites and disease. It also enables fish farms to operate away from port activity and shipping lanes and away from where people live and play. And simply being in deeper waters reduces environmental impacts – as shown by a University of Miami study last year that was done at major commercial fish farm in Panama.

Why We Need More Aquaculture

One thing the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated is how quickly supply chains can be disrupted. Developing a robust open ocean aquaculture industry in the United States would help guard against that happening to our food supply by providing quality, healthy fish that are harvested closer to home in a manner that’s safe and sustainable.

It would also create new jobs and solidify existing positions, reinvigorating our working waterfronts and local economies that have been hurt by setbacks to our fishing industry. Over time, open ocean aquaculture would become an important part of the U.S. economy – but only if government breaks down the ill-advised or unintended barriers currently in place.

That’s why the White House’s executive order is such welcome news. But like all executive orders, it can quickly be rescinded by the next administration – theoretically in just nine months depending upon what happens in November. That’s why it’s also imperative that Congress take up the bipartisan AQUAA Act and provide a permanent regulatory framework for aquaculture in the United States.

That’s something Innovasea and our partners at SATS will continue working for.

About the Author

David Kelly is CEO and chief technology officer of Innovasea, which is revolutionizing aquaculture and advancing the science of fish tracking to make our oceans and freshwater ecosystems sustainable for future generations. He is responsible for setting Innovasea’s overall strategy and leading research and development efforts to design and build the world’s most technologically advanced aquatic solutions.

Prior to Innovasea, David served as president and chief executive officer of Bluefin Robotics, a provider of autonomous underwater vehicles and related marine robotics technology.  David is a senior executive and technologist with experience that ranges from early-stage high tech companies to Fortune 500 firms.

David holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, a Master of Science in Computer Science from the University of Texas at Dallas and an MBA from Southern Methodist University.

Ready to take the plunge?

Contact Innovasea today to find out how our aquaculture and fish tracking experts can help with your next project. 

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