Federal Court Rules Federal Government Cannot Allow Fish Farms in the Gulf of Mexico

Salmon Aquaculture in Norway        Photo: Brataffe, Wikimedia Commons

This week two Republican-appointee federal judges overturned a Trump Administration-endorsed plan that would have allowed “up to 64 million pounds of seafood” to be produced annually in fish farms in federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico.  Environmental organizations and fishing businesses filed the challenge, arguing that federal law does not give the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) authority to approve this type of fishing operation — the statute’s silence/ambiguity on what constitutes “harvesting” fish precludes fish farming, according to the Court.  One Democratic-appointee dissented because in his view the statute is broad enough to allow the agency to permit/regulate fish farms.

Why This Matters: Fish farming is happening all over the world — except here in the U.S.  Chances are the shrimp, salmon or tilapia you buy in the store is farm-raised in another country – more than 50% of the world’s supply of fish now comes from aquaculture This was a test case – now U.S. aquaculture will be limited to state waters close to shore. We need tough environmental and safety standards for aquaculture, but to say the agency has no authority to allow it at all may lead Congress to re-open the law governing commercial fishing, which has not had been updated since 2006, leading to other changes that might undercut sustainable fishing mandates.

Aquaculture is Growing

The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) defines aquaculture as “the farming of aquatic animals, including finfish, crustaceans, mollusks, etc. and aquatic plants, mostly algae, using or within freshwater, sea water, brackish water and inland saline water.”  According to the FAO, in 2018 “World aquaculture production attained another all-time record high of 114.5 million tonnes in live weight in 2018 [see chart below}, with a total farmgate sale value of USD 263.6 billion (the price of the product available at the farm, excluding any separately billed transport or delivery charge.)  The major aquaculture producing countries are China, India, Indonesia, Viet Nam, Bangladesh, Egypt, Norway and Chile, and the industry employs 20 million people worldwide.  The U.S. imports most of its seafood.  NOAA reports that “By weight, approximately 90 percent of the seafood we eat comes from abroad, over half of it from aquaculture. Driven by imports, the U.S. seafood trade deficit has grown to $16.8 billion in 2017.”  And though the U.S. is ranked 17th in the world in terms of aquaculture production, we are, according to NOAA, “a major player” in the industry because we supply “a variety of advanced technology, feed, equipment, and investment capital to other producers around the world.”

The Court’s Decision

The Gulf of Mexico Regional Fishery Management Council, comprised of fishers and other experts from the region, created the aquaculture plan to provide the opportunity for aquaculture businesses to get into the water to try to compete with cheap foreign imports of farmed fish that undercut domestic producers of the same species such as shrimp. The Court’s decision will inhibit the further development of aquaculture in federal waters in the short run.  Other regions of the country are unlikely to try to develop a similar aquaculture plan, and U.S. investments in the industry will continue to go to operations based elsewhere. The Court’s language was strong (and a bit fishy). NOLA.com quoted the opinion, saying “the Trump administration offered ‘a slippery basis’ for empowering federal regulators the authority to ‘create an entire industry’ not mentioned in the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the primary law governing fisheries since 1976. ‘We will not bite,’ the decision says.”

To Go Deeper:  You can read the Court’s decision and the dissenting opinion here.

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