Can the United States successfully manage offshore fish farms and keep up with the country's growing demand for seafood and fish? During today's OnPoint, George Leonard, director of aquaculture at the Ocean Conservancy, explains how and why Congress should implement a national standard for aquaculture. He also discusses the environmental risks associated with fish farming.
Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is George Leonard, director of aquaculture at the Ocean Conservancy. George, thanks for coming on the show.
George Leonard: It's a pleasure to be here, thanks Monica.
Monica Trauzzi: George, the aquaculture issue is likely to start getting some attention on the Hill in the coming months with Congresswoman Capps having recently unveiled a bill that would implement a national standard for aquaculture.
George Leonard: That's right.
Monica Trauzzi: Let's sort of get some background here about what exactly aquaculture is and why it's becoming such an important part of the conversation on oceans in the U.S.
George Leonard: Sure. I mean it's becoming an important part of the conversation because aquaculture is becoming an important part of what we eat when we eat seafood. Many people don't realize that about half of the seafood we now eat is not caught in the wild by fishermen, but is actually farmed, farmed all around the world in a host of different ways, in a host of different species. And we import about 84 percent of the seafood that we eat in this country is coming from other countries. And so one of the big questions is where are we going to get our seafood in the future and aquaculture is becoming a big part of that discussion.
Monica Trauzzi: Congress, in the past, has been cold to NOAA's request to pass legislation to permit offshore fish farms. So, why is the discussion sort of shifting now?
George Leonard: I think the conversation is shifting for a couple of reasons. First, the previous attempts to permit, particularly open ocean aquaculture, have largely put the needs of the aquaculture industry before the needs of the environment. That is they've been largely viewed, I think, and rightly skeptically, because they would essentially promote industry development over environmental protection. There's an opportunity to sort of shift that debate and put environmental protection on the same footing as the needs of the aquaculture industry. But it's becoming an issue because in the absence of federal legislation that doesn't mean that there's no aquaculture. There are ongoing attempts to develop an industry in this country and we can talk about those specifics. There's attempts on the West Coast. Where I live in California there's a big effort in the Gulf of Mexico to expand aquaculture dramatically and all of that would happen in the absence of a national plan without a national vision and sort of national standards to guide that industry. And, as a consequence, those ongoing efforts are getting increased attention by the conservation community and by Congress.
Monica Trauzzi: So, could this be addressed on a region-by-region basis or is it absolute necessary that we have a national standard?
George Leonard: It certainly could be addressed regionally and certainly how regions would approach aquaculture need to take into consideration local concerns. But in the absence of a national plan there won't be national standards that would set sort of the benchmark of what Americans would expect of this new industry.
Monica Trauzzi: So, on the Capps' bill specifically what is she seeking to do there?
George Leonard: So, she's seeking to set up, I think, a really nice balance of environmental protection and a permitting system that would allow an industry to proceed. There are a host of specific issues, but probably the most important of which is for the kinds of environmental concerns that are out there, there are some specific standards by which the industry would be expected to comply.
Monica Trauzzi: And so Magnuson-Stevens doesn't apply here?
George Leonard: It's currently applying. In fact, this is what's happening in the Gulf. Right now, in the Gulf of Mexico, commerce in the late fall essentially approved a plan under the Magnuson-Stevens Act to create a permitting system for aquaculture. The problem is this is very much a square peg in a round hole problem. The nation's fishing laws were designed to regulate the capture of wild animals. Fishing is much more akin to hunting than aquaculture, which is much more akin to agriculture and so, as a consequence, it makes no sense from a conceptual standpoint to try to regulate aquaculture under the nation's fishing laws.
Monica Trauzzi: So, what are some of the key environmental risks associated with fish farming?
George Leonard: There are a couple of big ones. One is the fact that fish can escape and when they escape from the fish pens they can interbreed or compete with wild fish for food or for mates and they can have negative impacts on the wild fish. In addition, there is a high risk of disease transfer. So, when you have high densities of fish on farms you can get disease episodes that actually start in the wild, but get amplified on the farm and those can get transferred back out to wild fish. And the other major one, and in fact it's probably the most important issue in the long run for the sustainability not only of aquaculture here in the U.S., but around the world, is that currently many of these fish rely on wild fish for feed. So there's a very tight connection now between the need for wild fish and capturing wild fish to turn into fish meal and then convert those into these high-value fish. So, we need to resolve what we call the feed problem if we ultimately are going to have an increased supply of protein.
Monica Trauzzi: So, it sounds like there's a delicate balance here. I mean is there a straight forward way to preserve the ocean's ecosystem, but also keep up with the growing demand for seafood and fish in the U.S.?
George Leonard: Well, I don't think there is a straightforward way and that's why this has been both controversial and the legislation seeks to kind of craft that way. This is complicated. This is all about trying to figure out how we meet society's needs for food, in this case for fish, without doing environmental damage and so, as a consequence, you need a thoughtful, adaptive, science-based process that's really founded on good ecological research to do that. In the same way that where we're going to get our new energy needs, that's a challenge. There's no simple solution, but for folks that are willing to work in the middle and craft, you know, roll up their sleeves and think carefully about how we do this there's a place to do that.
Monica Trauzzi: How has the discussion shifted under the Obama administration? Or have we seen that?
George Leonard: Well, the administration has not provided an opinion yet on Congresswoman Capps' bill. We have new leadership at NOAA, the regulatory agency for oceans, and we are optimistic that that new leadership will help influence the debate and influence how the administration views this bill and we look forward to working with them going forward on that.
Monica Trauzzi: And the Interagency Ocean Task Force, will that provide some guidance?
George Leonard: It will provide some guidance. What's interesting on the Capps' bill, and this is why we think the congresswoman was really a visionary on this issue and deserves a lot of credit for her leadership on this, is it's looked to try to get at and address many of the concern that there. And one of those is a worry about stove piping and this is exactly what the Obama taskbar is was trying to get at across the oceans sort of writ large, to come up with a new national policy that looks to integrate the various ocean uses that we're likely to see, renewable energy, aquaculture is one of them. And so in the Capps' bill there is a requirement that how we proceed with aquaculture is carefully integrated with marine spatial planning and ecosystem-based ocean management. It's really anticipating the work that the administration is setting into motion now to develop a new national policy and to use marine spatial planning as a tool to get at more effective ocean use and management.
Monica Trauzzi: OK, we'll end it right there. Thank you for coming on the show.
George Leonard: Sure, my pleasure.
Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.
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