There may not be enough fish for surging demand. Let science guide the solution with the SEAfood Act
For people across the country, the new year started just like the old: with the news full of stories about unusual weather, fires, floods and other disasters. Perhaps that’s why so many people today have resolved to cut their carbon footprint by driving electric, refusing plastic and installing solar panels. And critically, many are replacing some of the meat in their diet with less carbon-intensive options, like seafood. There’s just one problem: With demand surging, there may not be enough fish in the sea to support good harvests and sustain ocean ecosystems even under the best management scenarios.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen the evidence firsthand. We are scientists who’ve worked with fishing and aquaculture communities, regulators and industry to conserve marine ecosystems without jeopardizing coastal economies for over 30 years. Together, we’ve watched warming ocean waters, overfishing and other factors cause fish populations to shift or even decline, threatening ecosystems and the livelihoods of fishermen on all three coasts. And with seafood demand increasing around the world, the pressure on wild capture fisheries will only increase.
But a bill introduced at the end of the last Congress could be the first step toward one solution: growing our own fish. Rep. Alan Lowenthal’s (D-Calif.) Science-based Equitable Aquaculture Food Act, or SEAfood Act, would lay the groundwork for U.S. seafood farming, or aquaculture, that mirrors that of U.S. fisheries, which are managed based on data and science and are regarded as among the best regulated in the world. The SEAfood Act is a responsible path forward that will result in a well-regulated offshore aquaculture industry based on data and science that can provide consumers with U.S.-grown, safe and sustainable seafood.
Contrary to recent assertions, the SEAfood Act is not a permitting bill. It’s a science bill. The SEAfood Act will direct the federal government to study the issue of offshore aquaculture, plan systems for governing such an industry, and collect and analyze the data we need to close knowledge gaps. With this foundation, we can develop the right regulatory standards to optimize the benefits from offshore aquaculture and minimize risks and potential negative impact on marine ecosystems.
When it comes to offshore aquaculture, we aren’t starting from scratch, but there are a lot of unknowns. The U.S. has seen success with nearshore farming of kelp, finfish and shellfish, but not all of the lessons learned will necessarily apply to this new industry. For example, we don’t know the best approach to choosing an offshore site that will be productive yet minimize risks to workers and ecosystems. We’re not sure how to design offshore pens so they aren’t damaged in harsh weather, which can lead to harmful interactions with existing wildlife. And despite many advances in fish feed sustainability, we still have a lot to learn about managing feed for understudied species that will be grown in offshore environments to keep environmental footprints low.
The SEAfood Act is the only bill introduced in Congress designed to close those and other gaps in our knowledge so we can fashion a thriving industry that can grow without compromising ecological bottom lines. And those bottom lines are real: fishermen have long understood their connection to and reliance on the health of the ocean they fish. The ocean’s limits have only become more apparent as climate change disrupts catch seasons and permanently alters once-fertile fishing grounds, threatening whole communities and their ways of life. Moreover, the bill would increase economic opportunities for historically excluded groups by creating grants for aquaculture centers at minority-serving institutions. It would also ensure knowledge and analysis from diverse, local and commonly underrepresented voices are considered.
A safe, sustainable, well-regulated offshore aquaculture industry is an exciting possibility because it could help boost these communities while producing more low-carbon seafood domestically. But first, we need to make sure we do it right.
That’s the most promising aspect of the SEAfood Act. It would give us the science and the data we need to make offshore aquaculture as safe and sustainable as possible — both for humans and marine life — before the industry fully develops and inertia sets in. Once we have the science, we can work collaboratively with this burgeoning industry and increase the supply of healthy, low-carbon seafood in U.S. grocery stores and on American plates — all while creating jobs here at home. And that is a worthy resolution for Congress to reintroduce and pass this year.
Rod Fujita is a senior scientist at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). EDF was involved in crafting the SEAfood Act.
Michael Graham is a professor and phycologist (seaweed biologist) at California State University’s Moss Landing Marine Laboratories.
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