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All About Aquaculture: Current Status in New England

Shellfish aquaculture operations, common in New England, must have permits to place their rafts in coastal areas. (Photo Credit: USDA).

Shellfish aquaculture operations, common in New England, must have permits to place their rafts in coastal areas. (Photo Credit: USDA).

Madi Gamble was the Ocean Conservation intern this summer at CLF. She grew up fishing in Marblehead, MA and is now a senior at Dartmouth College, where she studies biology and environmental science. This piece is the fourth and final post in a series focused on aquaculture, both world-wide and in New England.

Given aquaculture’s potential to both protect and harm natural ecosystems and wild fisheries, there is a great amount of research focused on making aquaculture more productive and sustainable—and a great deal of regulatory oversight to ensure that safe practices are employed.

New England is a hotspot for both aquaculture production and research. In Boston, the New England Aquarium’s Sustainable Aquaculture Project focuses on developing new technologies and standards to make aquaculture more sustainable and less environmentally risky. At Dartmouth College, Dr. Anne Kapuscinski’s lab is experimenting with the use of algae as a substitute for fishmeal and fish oil in aquaculture feed. At the University of Rhode Island, the Fisheries, Animal and Veterinary Science Department conducts research regarding diseases, economics, eco-labeling, and aquatic environment use as they relate to aquaculture. Finfish and shellfish aquaculture is also studied through the University of New Hampshire’s Atlantic Marine Aquaculture Center and their Fisheries and Aquaculture Extension program.

Some institutions are coupling aquaculture production and research via experimental aquaculture programs, many of which are focused on farming species whose wild stocks are struggling. In New England, there has been a strong effort to develop groundfish aquaculture. Great Bay Aquaculture (GBA), based in New Hampshire and Maine, is researching and farming Atlantic cod, as well as summer flounder, sea bass, and sea bream. While cod aquaculture is already a successful industry in Canada and northern Europe, Great Bay Aquaculture is currently the only aquaculture company in the United States that raises Atlantic cod.

Besides these experimental groundfish programs and countless shellfish aquaculture operations, the other major farmed species in New England is Atlantic salmon. Cooke Aquaculture, an aquaculture company based in New Brunswick, Canada, has salmon aquaculture operations in numerous places along the Maine coastline. Their salmon is sold throughout eastern Canada and the northeastern United States under the brands True North Salmon, Heritage Salmon and Jail Island Salmon. Palom Aquaculture, a Connecticut-based start-up, applied earlier this year for permits to start land-based salmon aquaculture operations in Gouldsboro, Maine, near where the University of Maine Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research already operates their halibut hatchery. One of the largest aquaculture operations in New England, Australis, is the first in the country to produce barramundi, a high-value Pacific fish frequently farmed in Australia.

In addition to marine aquaculture, many inland fish farms in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts farm trout and other freshwater species in order to stock lakes, ponds, and streams.

Despite the success of New England aquaculture operations, the lack of a simple, comprehensive regulatory structure for the industry remains a major barrier to the growth of aquaculture operations in the United States. Currently, policies and regulations for commercial aquaculture operations are managed by an array of different government agencies, and often the authority of each agency in the realm of aquaculture is not clearly defined. However, in general, anyone interested in starting an aquaculture business must consult with and obtain permits or permission from the FDA, USDA, EPA, NOAA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).

The FDA ensures that seafood from aquaculture operations is safe for human consumption. This includes making sure that feed and any drugs or chemicals used in the industry are FDA approved and properly administered. The USDA oversees issues related to disease and aquatic animal health in general. The EPA regulates and gives permits for the discharge of effluent and other pollutants from aquaculture, and generally keeps an eye on the environmental impacts of the operation. FWS makes sure that aquaculture doesn’t interfere with any wild fish populations or ongoing species recovery programs, and the Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard are involved with marine aquaculture practices that may interfere with navigation or involve dredging or otherwise changing a waterway. NOAA’s role in aquaculture regulation is not well defined, but the agency oversees aquaculture as part of its responsibility to manage fisheries in the United States via the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

In New England, the New England Fishery Management Council has developed a policy to deal with aquaculture operations. Under this policy, the NEFMC must review and take public comment on any aquaculture proposals over at least two council meetings, and then prepare a document that outlines the proposal, any alternatives that were considered, and the biological and economic implications the aquaculture project will have. They must then hold a vote before sending their recommendations to NMFS.

Aquaculture bears tremendous potential for providing a safe, sustainable source of protein to a growing population. Its success will depend on a number of factors—a streamlined but rigorous regulatory mechanism, the development of feeds that do not depend on fish oil sourced from depleted forage fish stocks, and continued efforts to reduce environmental impacts, among others. New England has the potential to lead the industry to a more sustainable future.


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