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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Open Ocean Aquaculture

Harold F. Upton
Analyst in Natural Resources Policy

Eugene H. Buck
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy


Open ocean aquaculture is broadly defined as the rearing of marine organisms in exposed areas beyond significant coastal influence. Open ocean aquaculture employs less control over organisms and the surrounding environment than do inshore and land-based aquaculture, which are often undertaken in enclosures, such as ponds. When aquaculture operations are located beyond coastal state jurisdiction, within the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ; generally 3 to 200 nautical miles from shore), they are regulated primarily by federal agencies. Thus far, only a few aquaculture research facilities have operated in the U.S. EEZ. To date, all commercial aquaculture facilities have been sited in nearshore waters under state or territorial jurisdiction. 

Development of commercial aquaculture facilities in federal waters is hampered by an unclear regulatory process for the EEZ, and technical uncertainties related to working in offshore areas. Regulatory uncertainty has been identified by the Administration as the major barrier to developing open ocean aquaculture. Uncertainties often translate into barriers to commercial investment. Potential environmental and economic impacts and associated controversy have also likely contributed to slowing expansion. 

Proponents of open ocean aquaculture believe it is the beginning of the "blue revolution"—a period of broad advances in culture methods and associated increases in production. Critics raise concerns about environmental protection and potential impacts on existing commercial fisheries. Potential outcomes are difficult to characterize because of the diverse nature of potential operations and the lack of aquaculture experience in open ocean areas. 

On January 28, 2009, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council voted to approve a plan to issue aquaculture permits and regulate aquaculture in federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico. On September 3, 2009, the plan took effect because the Secretary of Commerce declined to oppose it within the required statutory period. Environmentalists and some fishing industry representatives have opposed the plan because of concerns related to environmental protection and potential negative effects on wild fish populations. Many who oppose the plan support a precautionary approach and development of national aquaculture standards. On September 8, 2009, H.R. 3534, the Consolidated Land, Energy, and Aquatic Resources Act of 2009, was introduced. Section 704 of the bill would have rescinded the authority of the Secretary of Commerce to develop or approve fishery management plans to permit or regulate offshore aquaculture. On July 30, 2010, H.R. 3534 was passed by the House, but the section related to offshore aquaculture was removed from the bill. H.R. 4363, the National Sustainable Offshore Aquaculture Act of 2009, introduced on December 16, 2009, would establish a regulatory system for offshore aquaculture in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone. S. 3417, the Research in Aquaculture Opportunity and Responsibility Act of 2010, introduced on May 25, 2010, would prohibit offshore aquaculture until three years after the submission of a report on the impacts of offshore aquaculture. 

This report discusses four general areas: (1) operational and business-related challenges; (2) potential economic impacts; (3) potential environmental impacts; and (4) the legal and regulatory environment. Significant questions remain about whether an appropriate mechanism exists for any federal agency to provide an open ocean aquaculture lease with the necessary property rights to begin construction and operation. Policy makers and regulators will be challenged to weigh the needs of a developing industry against potential environmental and social impacts.



Date of Report: August 9, 2010
Number of Pages: 24
Order Number: RL32694
Price: $29.95

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