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Advocates believe the time is finally right for US offshore aquaculture

The pro-business Trump administration might be what's needed to get Congress to approve new level of US aquaculture development.

A bill that would establish a federal system for regulating and permitting offshore aquaculture farms in the United States should have momentum in Congress this year, according to its advocates.

"We have a strong presence on Capitol Hill," seafood lobbyist Margaret Henderson, told IntraFish. Last year she helped form the Stronger America Through Seafood (SATS) advocacy trade group, a vocal proponent of the bill in Washington D.C.

"Our campaign is eager to see activity with this Congress," she said.

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The SATS is a broad coalition of companies that includes Cargill, Pacific Seafood, Taylor Shellfish, Pontos Aqua Advisory, Sysco, Pentair, High Liner Foods, Red Lobster, Fortune International, Taylor Shellfish, InnovaSea and Beaver Street Fisheries.

The “Advancing the Quality and Understanding of American Aquaculture" (AQUAA) Act, which was introduced in Congress near the end of last year, seeks to establish an Office of Marine Aquaculture within NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service to streamline aquaculture facilities permits, as well as help fund research and extension services for several existing aquaculture priorities.

Senator Roger Wicker, (R-Miss), who proposed the bill in the Senate is expected to re-introduce it soon, according to his office.

"Our goal is passage within the 116th Congress before the end of next year," Henderson said of the bill. Henderson said SATS is eager to pass the bill before Congress gets bogged down by the upcoming US presidential election in 2020.

Despite efforts that date back over a decade, offshore aquaculture has not taken off in the United States due to challenging and cumbersome permitting processes, Henderson said.

For years, coastal states such as Alaska have also fought offshore aquaculture, fearing the negative impacts it could have on wild, commercial fisheries.

Net-pen finfish farming has also been under close review by regulators, following the collapse of a massive Cooke Aquaculture-owned salmon pen in Washington state.

That event drove Washington's governor to ultimately ban open-net pen Atlantic fish-farming in the state by 2022.

There are currently no commercial finfish operations in US federal waters, which is defined as ocean water that spans between 3 and 200 miles offshore. Despite having the second largest Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the United States ranks 16 in global aquaculture production, according to NOAA.

California-based Catalina Sea Ranch is the only commercial offshore mussel farm in the United States, operating its 100-acre farm six miles from Huntington Beach, California.

Henderson said California is one state in particular she envisions benefiting from the bill, and that the seafood industry needs an act of Congress before investors feel comfortable funding more offshore production.

Stacy Schultz, the marketing manager and seafood sustainability coordinator for Fortune Fish and a member of SATS, agreed with Henderson's analysis.

"For Fortune, the US federal waters represent one of the biggest untapped opportunities for aquaculture," she told IntraFish. "We depend on aquaculture imports, and a lot of companies that want to produce farm-raised seafood here in the United States have a really hard time with the red tape and getting through the permitting. It can take years for permitting to go through, and there's a need to streamline that."

Schultz said aquaculture is taking on an increasingly larger role in the seafood industry, even in coastal states such as Alaska that have been averse to it.

She pointed to Alaska's push for mariculture in recent years that is leading to companies such as Silver Bay looking to start aquaculture projects there. "This bill would help them streamline that process too," Schultz said.

A rising tide lifts all boats

The bill would also help aquaculture companies who have no interest in offshore farming, Bill Dewey, director of public affairs with Washington state-based Taylor Shellfish farms, told IntraFish.

"From Taylor's perspective, we're not particularly interested in doing anything in federal waters, but there's a research and development component that will benefit all aquaculture," he said.

He pointed out the measure would create a research and development grant program that would appropriate a total of $296 million (€263 million) over the course of five fiscal years.

Taylor Shellfish could put that funding toward improving its own operations, he said.

"We're constantly needing to do research, whether it be around genetics or disease, we spend a lot of time researching our different farming practices to make sure we have the lightest effect on the environment we're farming in," he said.

The bill's focus on streamlining permitting would also apply to Taylor Shellfish, as the company still encounters permitting challenges when it comes to growing operations in Washington state, he said.

"We have a successful business here, but a lot of that has come through efficiencies in our existing farms, and trying to do more with what we have," he said.

Dewey said he is optimistic about the bill gaining bipartisan support, though it is part of the Republican-led Trump administration's broader agenda to produce more domestic seafood via aquaculture.

"It's about jobs, increasing seafood production and food security. It's hard to find a negative," he said. "At the end of the day, we're all interested in producing more sustainable seafood, and there's only so much wild fisheries can support."

Opposition remains strong

Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the California-based Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations & Institute for Fisheries Resources, said the group would likely oppose any pro-offshore legislation presented during the 116th Congress as it is unlikely to address the group's view that offshore aquaculture cannot exist without significantly harming commercial fishing.

Oppenheim was part of a group representing American fishermen who wrote to Congress in January opposing the expansion of aquaculture facilities in federal waters.

"In addition if any aquaculture regulatory review needs to be implemented, there needs to be fishery council management oversight and consultation with members of the council from the agencies," he told IntraFish. "I haven't seen proponents move forward with any council-related statute that seems satisfactory."

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