NOAA: “We won’t tell you what species to farm”

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SalmonBusiness sought an interview with a leading aquaculture expert in the U.S. Department of Commerce’s ocean resources advisory, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The result was some Q&A with NOAA Fisheries’ aquaculture science adviser, Michael Rust (pictured).

There’s a lot going on in U.S. salmon production. The state of Washington is pressing Atlantic salmon-farming out of coastal waters; Maine’s tax regime and nearness to markets is bringing in land-based salmon-farming, and there’s been an overhaul of rules for fish-farming in federal waters that seems to offer room for salmon as a species in open-water, or offshore, marine grow-outs. Here’s what NOAA Fisheries’ rust said about all of that.

Is it all over for Atlantic salmon farms in the U.S.?

“Definitely not. Atlantic salmon farms exist in Maine and the culture of Pacific salmon in Washington remains a possibility,” says Rust, who adds the usual refrain that diverse aquaculture remains the best opportunity to increase America’s seafood production and food security while supplying good new jobs and work for off-season fishermen and builders of cold storage and processing plant.

“But there is also opportunity for the heartland, where soy and corn farming produces much of the feed for salmon production and other species,” he adds.

Could finfish aquaculture be revived in federal waters?

“To a certain extent, it is developing now. We are seeing interest in all corners of the US for new fish farms. Science and our experience with salmon farming shows finfish aquaculture is a sustainable fisheries production method to meet growing seafood demand in an environmentally safe and healthy way. The demand keeps increasing. Our population continues to grow, and the latest data show we now import USD14 billion worth of seafood each year,” he explains.

Read New York bass could be path to US offshore salmon

About half of those imports are farmed in other countries, the Commerce Department says.

“Creating and expanding farmed fisheries here at home, as a complement to wild, is one way to drastically reduce reliance on those imports,” he adds.

Is there a future for salmonid husbandry in state waters of the littoral?

“It will likely grow slightly during the next decades. In addition to the Atlantic salmon net-pen industry in Maine, the U.S. has a vibrant trout farming industry and a large public-private salmonid stocking program. We have numerous salmon hatcheries in Alaska, the North Atlantic, and on the West Coast,” he says

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The west coast and Alaska salmon hatcheries provide 60 to 90 percent of the “wild” salmon caught in the areas they operate. “So yes, we see a bright future for those industries.”

Asked if the US will allow ordinary, commercial salmon-farming in Alaska, he was deferred to stately authority: “That choice is for the people of Alaska. We don’t have a crystal ball about what the future holds, but as you note, we already have salmon hatcheries in Alaska that produce a lot of wild fish.”

SalmonBusiness had once reported on an entrepreneurial woman trying to secure permits to grow fish offshore the U.S. and running into layers of bureaucracy, so we asked about it:

What is the true situation for aquaculture leases in U.S. Federal Waters? And is this a difficult or prohibitive process?

Industry’s response: a Norwegian grow-out concept of a type NOAA has taken note of SOURCE: Biolaks

“We do lag behind other nations on seafood farming and a part of that could be due to a legal system that was not designed with aquaculture in mind. Two years ago, NOAA filed a final rule implementing the nation’s first comprehensive regulatory program for aquaculture in federal waters. This rule creates a coordinated permitting system for the Gulf of Mexico, opening the door for the region to expand seafood production and create new jobs in an environmentally safe way.”

Rust says NOAA is trying to streamline the process, to make it easier for applicants but admits “Fish farming in federal waters requires not just a NOAA permit, but permits also from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers and several others.”

Streamlining
“A big push is to allow interested parties to apply in one place, at one time, and to check all the boxes needed by all the agencies. A second fishery management council in the Pacific Islands is looking at developing a draft rule similar to the one in the Gulf of Mexico. There are also a few projects in various stages of permitting or expansion on both the East and West Coasts, the Gulf of Mexico and the western Pacific.”

It’s apparent that he might mean Maine, where land-based aquaculture projects are now telling citizens they’ll need a lot of public water and a waterfront. Or, he might be referencing new rules to help along a New York offshore bass project.

Is there interest at NOAA or in the industry for offshore aquaculture models of the types seeing government interest in Norway? Could salmon leases in Federal waters one day materialise? What would it take?

“We are studying what Norway is doing. At its heart, Norway’s offshore expansion is really a call for private technology development and from the looks of it, business is responding. There is nothing keeping that, or similar, technology from being used in U.S. waters for salmon or any other species. As for salmon, that would be more a question of economics, that the business proposing the farm would have to figure out. We don’t tell farmers what to farm.”

Was there opportunity for NOAA to play a part in Washington State’s recent legislative action to phase out fin-fish aquaculture on shaky science? What’s your view of that spectacle?

Setback: the Cypress Island fish-farm collapse in Washington State

“The Puget Sound break was rare and unfortunate, but also provides a learning opportunity to look at what went wrong and further mitigate such rare occurrences in the future. We understand the debate is still ongoing and people are concerned. As a Federal agency, our job is to produce and make available the best quality of evidence-based information for decision makers, but we realize and accept that is only one input to the political decision-making process. It is up to others to decide how, or if, that information is used for decision making. NOAA was proactive on the science related to this issue, having studied and published a series of risk assessments in the early 2000’s and then reviewing it again for a paper in 2014.”

Tried to stop ban
Here Rust confirms that NOAA scientists spoke publicly to bring rational science to the Washington public. It briefed the state’s lawmakers.

“Evidence for the quality of that science came in an open letter recently sent to the state of Washington’s government from top-level scientists and managers,” he says, adding that much NOAA work on the escapee issue was delivered ahead of Washington’s second bill submission to ban salmon-farming.

“Those scientists asked lawmakers to look at the science in a clear and objective light, instead of letting fear drive their decisions. Given all this activity, I don’t think it was for a lack of objective information that the decisions were made as they were.”

This story was reformatted at 13:40 on Wednesday, March 14th, 2018.