As Fishermen Flounder, Trump Clears A Path For Farming The Oceans

Struggling commercial fishers and environmentalists say the White House is exploiting COVID-19 to privatize the ocean.
ARIANA DREHSLER via Getty Images

Kindra Arnesen still had her baby teeth when she started working on the docks in Plaquemine Parish, a spindrift of land kicked southeastward off the Louisiana boot tip into the Gulf of Mexico.

Family troubles made home an unwelcome place. But with fishermen, many of whom had hauled shrimp and almaco jack from the Gulf for generations, she found safety and income, earning hundreds of dollars a week shucking oysters in the sticky summer heat.

“These guys took me in and brought me up,” Arnesen said. “They showed me this is a good way of life.”

Making a living has been getting harder for her and others in the business. Tight regulations, pollution from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and competition from charter boats and amateur anglers were already driving would-be fourth- or fifth-generation fishers in the region to take up other professions. Then came the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Since lockdown measures began across the country in March, seafood sales to restaurants, which normally buy up to 80% of fresh catch, have dropped dramatically, threatening thousands of mom-and-pop fishing businesses with bankruptcy.

So when President Donald Trump ordered the Commerce Department to roll back regulations on commercial fishing earlier this month, Arnesen expected some relief. But her stomach dropped as she read the May 7 executive order. The main thrust of the presidential fiat set in motion a process to open federal waters, the stretch of ocean between three to 200 miles off most U.S. coastlines, to private companies farming fish in giant pens.

“It’s such a slap in the face,” Arnesen said. “This will destroy not only my business model but thousands of other business models across the entire coastline.”

Advocates for the U.S. aquaculture industry have long argued that the world’s growing appetite for seafood demands the expansion of fish farming, from oyster beds and inland salmon ponds to open-water pens teeming with finfish. At a moment when human-induced global warming is rapidly changing life in oceans, those in this nascent sector compare offshore aquaculture to seaward wind turbines ― a tool with more benefits than tradeoffs when it comes to sustainability.

“The United States has the technology, the skilled workforce, the coastal infrastructure, and the growing market for healthy farmed seafood,” Bill DiMento, president of the pro-aquaculture business group Stronger America Through Seafood, said in a statement. “Our country needs economic stimulus ― not just in terms of immediate cash assistance, but also in the form of new job opportunities. Why not put Americans back to work in an emerging industry like aquaculture at a time when it is needed most?”

But the concern isn’t just that raising tuna or tilapia in federal waters will eat into the market share of those who currently make a living off the seas. Environmentalists say farmed fish produce concentrated pollution and risk devastating wild populations should they accidentally get turned loose in open waters.

The existing supply networks for producing the food farmed fish eat threaten to break foundational links in food chains from the Gulf to The Gambia, the small country on Africa’s west coast, jeopardizing the animals and people who have relied on the fish stocks that aquaculture companies crave.

The Trump administration’s move comes as the novel coronavirus pandemic rips through the nation’s meat supply chain. That has fueled fresh calls to drastically overhaul the meat-producing industry, whose pollution, animal cruelty and harsh treatment of workers threaten more public health crises in years to come.

An aquaculture fishery in Qingdao, China.
An aquaculture fishery in Qingdao, China.
Barcroft Media via Getty Images

“This is the nightmare scenario: Having all these factory fish farms offshore that are going to be breeding disease and causing pollution,” said Rosanna Marie Neil, the policy counsel at the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, a group that advocates for fishermen. “That’s the last thing we need right now when we’re going through a pandemic.”

‘It’ll Drop Our Price To Bottom Dollar’

Before any giant fish pens can be plopped down in open oceans, Congress would need to give its approval through legislation, Neil said. But the aquaculture industry already enjoys bipartisan support.

Its website, Stronger America Through Seafood ― whose board includes executives from aquaculture startups, the restaurant chain Red Lobster and agribusiness giant Cargill ― displays endorsements from Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.) and Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.). The group has spent at least $161,500 on lobbying since the start of 2018, according to disclosures ProPublica collated.

What Trump’s executive order this month did is establish the federal chain of command to speed through aquaculture projects once the legal approval is in place.

The 3,100-word order instructs federal agencies to start devising a permit system and designates the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as the lead agency with authority to review and green-light projects in federal waters.

The order, according to the Food & Environment Reporting Network, settles a longstanding debate over who should regulate the nation’s fisheries, requiring that other agencies cooperate with NOAA’s decisions. NOAA sued for such authority as recently as 2016.

The Environmental Protection Agency is still reviewing a project to raise almaco jack in weighted net pens shaped like chalices in the Gulf of Mexico off Sarasota, Florida. Under the new guidelines, NOAA would have ultimate authority to oversee similar projects.

“Our mission, as a company, is to soften humanity’s footprint on the seas,” said Neil Anthony Sims, the chief executive of Ocean Era, the company behind the project.

“If we can have established a commercial offshore net pen operation in the Gulf of Mexico by 2025, so that the Gulf-region fishing and boating communities can actually see for themselves the minimal impacts,” he said, “then I will feel that we have established a model for how we might be able to then build further on this, and move to significantly reduce our collective footprint on marine ecosystems.”

But the project, known as Velella Epsilon, highlights the concerns fishers like Arnesen have over offshore fish farming. The project proposed raising two cohorts of fish over 18 months, ultimately producing 136,000 pounds of seafood, nearly two-thirds the total commercial fishers’ annual catch limit for wild species.

Yet commercial fishers, Arnesen said, feel they’re at a disadvantage. They pay thousands upon thousands of dollars to meet regulatory requirements and haul fish from the open waters during only certain times of the year. Farms, meanwhile, have costs that are easier to calculate, and they harvest all at once, potentially flooding the market before the fishing season even starts.

“They’re literally trying to match every bit of stock that we’re already putting on the market,” Arnesen said. “What would happen if they’re successful and that occurs? It’ll drop our price to bottom dollar, where it will no longer be feasible for us to fish that particular species.”

Another worry is what happens when a storm comes. Federal forecasters last week predicted 2020 would bring a record fifth consecutive active hurricane season.

“We’re a hotspot for tropical storms and hurricanes,” Arnesen said. “I’ve seen where medium-sized hurricanes have ripped oil platforms from the seafloor. How do they think they can secure these cages? There’s no way to build a structure that a storm can’t tear up.”

Washington state banned non-native fish farms in 2018 after Atlantic salmon escaped cages and invaded local rivers. The effects of unleashing the fish into ecosystems already in flux is one problem from climate change is still unclear. Pollution from net pens is another concern.

“There’s the waste issue,” said Miriam Goldstein, the director of ocean policy at the liberal Center for American Progress. “Simply put: These fish are pooping.”

Researchers writing in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics volume concluded in 2011 that the “obvious environmental and animal welfare aspects of finfish aquaculture make it hard to ethically defend a fish diet.”

Sims pointed to a five-year study published in 2019 in the Journal of the World Aquaculture Society that found no significant uptick in pollution from an offshore finfish farm off of Panama’s Caribbean coast.

Yet pesticides and chemicals to treat farmed fish for diseases that may develop in close quarters could also cause damage, as can excess food that falls out of the cages. A 2014 federal review found “offshore finfish aquaculture operations generally do not have the ability to prevent chemicals and veterinary drugs (if used) and uneaten feed and fish waste from leaving the farm environment and flowing into adjacent waters.” The environmental group Friends of the Earth concluded that “diseases, parasites, and other issues plague the stocks of industrial ocean fish farms, often causing significant death tolls.”

One model for avoiding these problems is Sims’ flagship fish farm in Hawaii, called Kona Kampachi. The project, which moved forward with special permits from NOAA and is now run by the company Blue Ocean Mariculture, is carefully monitored with divers who halt feeding if fishmeal starts seeping out of the spherical net pens.

But Goldstein said the Hawaii farm “isn’t necessarily replicable.” Hawaii, the product of undersea volcanoes, has no continental shelf, so the farm is located in deep waters where there is little concern for how feces or food could hurt life at the bottom. (Sims argued that mandating and enforcing similar conditions would be “simply a matter of agency will. No one, anywhere, is suggesting that that be changed.”)

“This is the nightmare scenario: Having all these factory fish farms offshore that are going to be breeding disease and causing pollution.”

- Rosanna Marie Neil, policy counsel at the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance

The fishmeal itself raises more concerns. Fish farms in the Gulf would likely feed on anchovies or menhaden, a small, oily and abundant fish that serves as a cornerstone of the wild food chain, disrupting the wild ecosystem. Pressure on the menhaden population in the years after the BP oil spill, for example, threw other species into turmoil, studies published in 2017 found.

The aquaculture industry’s demand for such fishmeal ripples oceans away. Chinese fishmeal companies monopolized the market for fish that locals in The Gambia, once considered a staple protein.

“Now the people there have no access to those fish because fishmeal firms can pay more,” Goldstein said. “If U.S. fish farms were to enter the fray, there’s no guarantee fishmeal would be sustainably or ethically sourced.”

A False Premise

The Trump administration frequently cites the statistic that 90% of seafood Americans eat is imported ― the so-called “seafood deficit,” which in turn is part of the argument propelling fish farming projects. But the 90% figure is misleading. A large percentage of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is caught here, shipped overseas for processing, then re-imported.

A study published last May in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences argued that the percentage of seafood caught overseas and eaten in the U.S. is closer to 65%.

Even that figure doesn’t mean “the seafood deficit is a problem,” said Goldstein.

“It reflects consumer preferences,” she said. “If you go to Costco and look at what people are buying and selling, Americans like to eat a lot of farmed salmon and imported shrimp. But America catches a lot of squid.”

Federal regulators could also permit commercial fishers to catch species currently designated only for sport fishing and personal consumption, such as red drum, an abundant and flavorful fish.

“There are underutilized species that we could be harvesting to feed our nation,” Arnesen said.

President Donald Trump's administration has expressed concern about the dubious "seafood deficit," which has helped fuel the push for fish farming.
President Donald Trump's administration has expressed concern about the dubious "seafood deficit," which has helped fuel the push for fish farming.
Mark Wilson via Getty Images

Elsewhere in the country, environmentalists support expanding aquaculture. In Maine, where the shrimp fishery was closed in 2013, fishers struggle in the winter months after the lobster season peaks. One solution, as laid out in the Blue New Deal Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) proposed during her failed presidential bid, is to offer state and federal incentives to spur new fish processing markets and farms to produce shellfish and seaweed.

Sims cautioned that overlapping agency jurisdictions have been an obstacle to even attempting experimental projects, and said the new executive order doesn’t actually “change any of the regulations for offshore aquaculture, or the requirements for review.”

“It simply mandates that the agencies be proactive in identifying areas where aquaculture could be acceptable[,] identifies NOAA as a lead agency and sets a timeline for review,” he said. “The timeline is to prevent agency constipation.”

But even in a best-case scenario, Goldstein said, the Trump administration order would only end up “selling off federal waters to industrial aquaculture operators with no fish to be seen for another two to three years.”

“They justify this whole executive order over food security and helping coastal communities, but this does not help coastal communities at all,” she said. “And they are in very, very serious trouble right now.”

Arnesen said the smattering of regulatory benefits the order offers to commercial fishermen seems meant to “pacify us and shut us up.” But that’s not in her plans.

“We should have run a public relations campaign a long time ago,” she said. She offered a preview of what the coming one will look like: “They’re privatizing public waters. It’s not my fish, it’s your fish, I just go catch it for you.”

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