Charting a New Course Toward Sustainable Offshore Aquaculture

By Eric Schwaab

Americans import over 85% of all the seafood we consume — and half of that is from foreign aquaculture. That means when it comes to the majority of farmed fish we eat, we’re exporting our environmental footprint while missing out on the opportunity to create greater resilience and jobs for our coastal communities here in the U.S. Also lost is the opportunity to lead the way in developing best practices for sustainable production of healthy seafood that meets the most stringent environmental and health standards. This is most true in building a sustainable marine aquaculture industry.

The ocean as a solutions provider is particularly important in a post-COVID, climate-impacted world where the challenges of global seafood supply chains are laid bare and the need to strengthen our domestic economy is more evident. A sustainable and healthy planet for our children and grandchildren will require us to rethink the way we produce food, including from our ocean. Seafood is far and away the most carbon-efficient animal protein. Some, such as shellfish and seaweed, is even restorative to the natural environment, improving water quality, creating new aquatic habitats and building coastal resilience. Others, like finfish production, are more complicated.

That’s why today, I’m announcing that EDF Oceans is undertaking an important new initiative to chart a responsible path forward for offshore aquaculture in the United States. Aquaculture, including potentially offshore finfish aquaculture, will play an important role in creating a sustainable future — if done the right way with a clear focus on environmental safety, climate mitigation and equity.

Now is the time to tackle the triple threat of food insecurity, climate disruptions and economic inequity.

Already, the U.S. benefits from nearshore aquaculture, including seaweed and shellfish farming that produce low-carbon, sustainable and nutritious seafood while making our oceans healthier in the process. We also benefit from some of the most sustainable and well-managed wild-capture fisheries in the world.

Yet that farmed tilapia or sea bass on your plate is often produced in countries without rigorous environmental standards or social equity guidelines. In a very real way, we’re asking others to shoulder our environmental and social burdens when it comes to farmed fish. By growing more of our own nutritious and sustainable seafood here at home, we can ensure it is done the right way and meeting the most rigorous health standards.

Now is the time to tackle the triple threat of food insecurity, climate disruptions and economic inequity. A well-regulated domestic offshore aquaculture program in the United States that exists alongside our sustainable wild-capture fisheries can help tackle these threats. The U.S. has the opportunity to set a high bar for sustainability for the industry globally, much like we already do for wild-capture fisheries.

But as with almost all forms of food production, aquaculture presents risks to the environment and local communities. Those include equipment failures, fish escapes, interaction with wild-capture fisheries and pollution from farms. Modern aquaculture practices and advancements in technology have come a long way toward solving some of the industry’s most significant challenges. But we need to know more. The risks and benefits of offshore aquaculture must be weighed carefully with a science-first approach, and that means asking the right questions and understanding best practices.

We must chart a responsible path forward. 

For more than 50 years, EDF has partnered with fishing communities, businesses, governments, other environmental NGOs, tech leaders and policymakers to protect our ocean, mitigate the impacts of climate change on marine life and develop sustainable food from the sea.

With the right regulatory and policy framework based on sound science, both wild-capture fisheries and aquaculture can be part of a healthy ocean strategy — one that protects marine life, puts more climate-friendly sources of protein on our plates, and supports jobs and economic growth for a diverse array of Americans. Yet there is more work to do before that becomes a reality. That’s why we are:

  • Researching, identifying and prioritizing key issues in offshore aquaculture that would benefit from further study, including the impacts of escapes, localized pollution concerns, environmentally responsible approaches to feed, and other critical issues.
  • Working with experts and policymakers to develop legislation to examine the most significant issues and help to shape a strong regulatory framework for safe, sustainable and environmentally sound aquaculture.
  • Advocating for an expanding aquaculture industry that will benefit all Americans, particularly in historically disadvantaged communities — those experiencing the greatest burdens of environmental harm, economic inequality and climate change.

By understanding more about the risks and benefits from offshore aquaculture, and taking a science-first approach to regulations, this growing sector can be an important example of another solution we can realize from our ocean.

Learn more about this new initiative.