The AQUAA Bill: Polarizing Along Non-Traditional Lines

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by Gracie White

With the stagnation of wild fish stocks, more and more nations are turning to aquaculture as a way to meet growing demand for healthy protein. And with the increase in global populations, global aquaculture production will have to more than double by 2050 if there is any hope of meeting that need.[9] Many nations are en route to achieving that benchmark, experimenting with innovative new technologies to increase production levels with minimal environmental harm. The United States, however, is falling behind in this sector, losing out on protein, profits, and jobs. 

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a study in 2008 suggesting that doubling US aquaculture production levels (to approximately 1 million metric tons annually) could create over 50,000 jobs.[5] This lag is not for lack of suitable coastal area, in fact, the US had the largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the world, 3.4 million square miles, and yet is not even in the top 15 nations with regards to aquaculture production.[5] So what can account for this seemingly disparate gap? 

It seems to be twofold: a lack of finance and the current regulatory landscape.[2] Aquaculture companies are struggling to finance the very high upfront costs required to start a fish farm: the money is there, but the industry is still seen as very high risk, so investors are hesitant to get involved.[2] The main “risk” to new aquaculture farms in the US is the lack of security in leases due to the complex regulatory landscape.[2] Applying for an aquaculture lease takes multiple years, and several thousand dollars, for a very low chance that the lease will be approved. No funder wants to invest the thousands, or even millions, required for starting a farm when there is no security that a lease will ever get approved. 

At this point, there are multiple federal, state, and local overlapping jurisdiction problems, and a complete lack of an affordable or remotely efficient leasing and permitting process. The permitting process varies wildly by state, and even county, with no one organizational body having an overarching say in the process. To fight this, twenty-one aquaculture industry leaders have formed a coalition, known as “Stronger America Through Seafood.”[3, 10] This group is taking the lead on pressuring US legislators to reconsider the aquaculture permitting process, primarily through a bill known as “Advancing the Quality and Understanding of American Aquaculture Act,” known as the AQUAA bill.[1, 3] 

First proposed in June 2018  by Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the AQUAA bill would “establish an Office of Marine Aquaculture within [NOAA] that would be charged with coordinating the permit process. It would give federal aquaculture permit holders the security of tenure to secure financing for an aquaculture operation while maintaining environmental standards and funding research and extension services.”[3, 10] The AQUAA bill details a new permitting process for starting marine farms in federal waters, between 3 and 200 miles offshore (EEZ boundary zone).[10] The bill was referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, where it died.[5] Now that the 116th congress is in place, Senator Wicker will soon reintroduce the AQUAA bill, and with a new strategy, heavily reliant on bipartisan support and key industry players involved in the Stronger America Through Seafood Coalition. 

However, the growing industry support of the AQUAA bill has made some others very nervous. When the AQUAA bill was introduced to the House, a group of 140 fishermen and their corresponding trade groups wrote a letter asking legislators to not support any new bills that may promote the aquaculture industry in the U.S. - stating that “American commercial fishing and marine finfish aquaculture cannot coexist.”[5] Additionally, over 100 other organizations, mostly environmentally-focused, voiced their concerns about the AQUAA bill.[5] These organizations are primarily concerned with the environmental risks associated with aquaculture, and they have a right to be concerned[5] Richard Waite, a researcher with the World Research Institute, says "...if [aquaculture] were to more than double, and we don't improve the sector's efficiency, its environmental impact will double as well."[9] Industrial fish farms have historically polluted ocean ecosystems to a point of permanent damage. Overcrowding of fish in net pens can create dead-zones in the surrounding area, and provide opportunity for diseases to spread rapidly, infecting farmed and wild populations alike.[9]  

Dr. Halley Froelich (UCSB) speaking about the growth of aquaculture, says “Like any food system, aquaculture can be done poorly; we’ve seen it. This is really an opportunity to shape the future of food for the betterment of people and the environment.”[8] Specifically, greenhouse gas emissions are magnitudes lower in aquaculture than in industrial agriculture, especially cattle farming - known for emitting vast quantities of methane, a gas thirty times as potent as carbon dioxide.[9] Producing an additional 80 million tons of fish is plausible for the planet, whereas an additional 80 million tons of beef is most definitely not.[9] The US aquaculture industry has both the technology and the space to expand sustainably, but according to Froelich, the lack of a streamlined regulatory process is what holds the industry back.[8] 

Aquaculture is a very polarizing topic, though not along traditional party lines. Rather, support and opposition are instead drawn along industry lines. States that can profit off of aquaculture either through the farms themselves or related industries, such as Democratic Connecticut and Minnesota, are working with Mississippi Republicans in support of the fledgling industry. Conversely, states that perceive high levels of risk associated with aquaculture in their state waters, either to the environment or their wild fisheries, such as California, are the most opposed. Fishermen are working with die-hard conservationists, a previously unlikely pairing, to oppose the growth of aquaculture in the US. 

I don’t know if the AQUAA bill will pass the 116th congress, but I do know that global support for aquaculture is growing as the industry develops and improves. While perhaps not this year, the United States will have to transform their regulatory landscape, or else continue to run a massive seafood deficit and be left behind on a global food production movement. 


References

[1]F., R. (2018, June 26). Titles - S.3138 - 115th Congress (2017-2018): AQUAA Act. Retrieved from https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/3138/titles 

[2]Godfrey, Mark. “Financing Aquaculture: The Cash Is There, but Information Is Lacking.” Seafoodsource.com, SeafoodSource News, www.seafoodsource.com/features/financing-aquaculture-the-cash-is-there-but-information-is-lacking.

[3]Huffman, J. Undercurrent News, (2018, June 26). “Bill introduced to streamline aquaculture in US waters; supported by Cargill, High Liner, others.” Retrieved from https://www.undercurrentnews.com/2018/06/26/bill-introduced-to-streamline-aquaculture-in-us-waters-supported-by-cargill-high-liner-others/ 

[4]Huffman, J. Undercurrent News, (2018, June 27). “Cargill, High Liner, Red Lobster, others fuel pro-US aquaculture power lobby.” Retrieved from https://www.undercurrentnews.com/2018/06/27/cargill-high-liner-red-lobster-others-fuel-pro-us-aquaculture-power-lobby/ 

[5]Huffman, J. Undercurrent News, (2019, January 09). “Wild fish harvesters rally to fight US aquaculture push in new Congress.” Retrieved from https://www.undercurrentnews.com/2019/01/09/wild-fish-harvesters-rally-to-fight-us-aquaculture-push-in-new-congress/ 

[6]M., S. (2018, October 22). H.R.6966 - 115th Congress (2017-2018): AQUAA Act. Retrieved from https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/6966/ 

[7]Henderson, M. Request for original sponsors on AQUAA Act. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.wfga.net/news/request-for-original-sponsors-on-aquaa-act

[8]Seifert, Jenny. “Oceans Have Vast, Untapped Potential for Sustainable Aquaculture.” NCEAS, University of California, Santa Barbara, 10 Aug. 2017, www.nceas.ucsb.edu/news/sustainable-aquaculture-potential.

[9]Singh, Maanvi. “Can Farmed Fish Feed The World Without Destroying The Environment?” The Salt, National Public Radio, 6 June 2014, www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/06/06/319247280/can-farmed-fish-feed-the-world-without-destroying-the-environment

[10]US Senator Roger Wicker files bill to further aquaculture industry. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.seafoodsource.com/news/aquaculture/us-senator-roger-wicker-files-bill-to-further-aquaculture-industry2 

[11]Undercurrent News. (2019, January 29). “Pro-federal aquaculture coalition begins signature drive for coming legislation.” Retrieved from https://www.undercurrentnews.com/2019/01/29/pro-federal-aquaculture-coalition-begins-signature-drive-for-coming-legislation/ 

[12]Wicker, R. (n.d.). “Wicker Introduces Bill to Advance American Aquaculture.” Retrieved from https://www.wicker.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2018/6/wicker-introduces-bill-to-advance-american-aquaculture 


Moritz Mueller