American Aquaculture: A Failing System

Caitlin Lashbrook is completing her Masters Degree in Coastal Ocean Policy at the University of North Carolina Wilmington where she also received her Bachelors of Science in Marine Biology. Throughout her collegiate studies, she has always taken interest in issues dealing with fisheries and wildlife management. Her research focuses on the regulatory nature of aquaculture operations and find solutions for future growth in sustainable aquaculture.

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In recent decades, seafood products have taken a more established role in the American diet with demand increasing yearly. Most of this seafood, however, is not produced or caught in the United States.

On the heels of the 1970s oil crises, congress passed the National Aquaculture Act of 1980. Aquaculture refers to the raising of aquatic animals or growing of aquatic plants in a controlled environment. The act’s intentions included “reducing the U.S. trade deficit in fisheries products” however has failed to do so.

The amount of seafood imported into the U.S. continues to rise and the current value is about five times higher than exported seafood products. In addition, recent years show a decline in seafood production as a result of the shrinking number and size of fish farms. One way to reduce this trading gap would be to increase aquaculture production in the United States.

United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service
So why does it matter that domestic seafood production is down and imports are rising?

During the 1970s oil crises, the U.S. economy experienced a recession and a near-halt in trade as foreign relations became strained. The Yom Kippur War caused an oil embargo, or trade ban, between the U.S. and Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC). Oil prices skyrocketed, placing a heavy financial burden on consumers. The crises displayed the dynamic nature of foreign relationships.

U.S. reliance on foreign goods becomes problematic when economic, political, social and environmental factors in other countries influence and potentially jeopardize future supplies and prices. Based on the oil embargo example, it makes economic sense to increase domestic aquaculture, thereby reducing our reliance on foreign trade to ensure affordable seafood as demand continues to increase.

Data collected from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ Fishery and Aquaculture Department

Why hasn’t aquaculture progressed like the act had hoped?

One of the largest hurdles aquaculture faces is regulation. 

Federal, state, and local government all play a role in permitting and regulating aquaculture facilities. Studies demonstrate that aquaculturists, government officials, and researchers all identify regulatory restrictions as the leading cause for sluggish aquaculture growth. In addition to the various levels of government involved, numerous agencies at each level playing an active role. From the Fish and Wildlife Service, which focuses on endangered species, to the Army Corps of Engineers which tackles coastal zone uses, aquaculturists are faced with specialty agencies each with their own set of rules for aquaculture operations.

In addition, special interests groups such as, homeowners, environmentalist and fishermen advocate for aquaculture restrictions. Coastal homeowners want to restrict any operation that inhibits their pristine view. Fishermen see aquaculture as a threat to their livelihood. Environmentalists worry pollution and genetic degradation of wild fish stocks. All of these groups have potential to influence permitting regulations when mobilized and vocal.

So how do we improve outcomes towards the legislative goals set out by the National Aquaculture Act?

Keeping with the status quo would result in increasing reliance on foreign sources for seafood products. American demand has been rising for decades and is likely to continue that trend. With that being said, alternative options could result in aquaculture expansion which in turn would reduce the trade deficit. 

One option for aquaculture is to increase the abundance of land-based facilities. Since much of the opposition and regulation imposed on aquaculture deal with issues of coastal zone usage, increasing the abundance land-based facilities would negate the issues surrounding land use in coastal areas. 

Another option is offshore aquaculture, an alternative that is in the beginning stages of development. Offshore aquaculture could be beneficial as it is removed from most human viewpoints and interactions. Offshore aquaculture also reduces the concern of pollution since greater water depths would reduce the concentration of waste compounds. 

In addition to any of the proposed alternatives, increasing collaboration in governance is needed. Between interest groups, aquaculturists, federal, local and state officials, a cooperative form of regulation would serve in the best interests of all groups. 

Through cooperation and collaboration of regulatory agencies and interests groups, the United States could make great strides towards the goals of the National Aquaculture Act.


  1. Thanks for the insight on domestic Aquaculture and the National Aquaculture Act! I had not spent much time considering the fragility of our country's international trade relations until very recently, but based on your evidence it seems clear that the seafood market (among others) would be in big trouble if the U.S. went and did something drastic like creating new national enemies. You also did a great job illustrating your points with the graphics. I would be curious to know what other international markets were threatened by the 1970's oil crisis and whether the U.S. has had better luck rejuvenating domestic production in those areas- perhaps with a different approach. Also, if federal regulations are what is inhibiting the increasing aquaculture that the federal government wants, I wonder why they haven't adjusted them yet.

  2. As an recreational fisherman, I wonder what kind of impacts increased aquaculture operations would have on local fish stocks as well as the overall ecosystems where they are located. I could see possible issues with feeding the farmed fish stock and dealing with the waste produced by these farms. Would there be any kind of access restriction to state or federal waters to the public? These might be smaller issues, but definitely noteworthy as doing anything in publicly owned waters is likely to upset some stakeholder group.

  3. As an recreational fisherman, I wonder what kind of impacts increased aquaculture operations would have on local fish stocks as well as the overall ecosystems where they are located. I could see possible issues with feeding the farmed fish stock and dealing with the waste produced by these farms. Would there be any kind of access restriction to state or federal waters to the public? These might be smaller issues, but definitely noteworthy as doing anything in publicly owned waters is likely to upset some stakeholder group.

  4. Yes, thank you! I never considered looking at aquaculture through the economics lens. I knew that aquaculture was used to increase fish populations for consumption, but I did not know it was in relation to import and export trade. Also, I like the thought of using land-based facilities as an alternative. This could potentially cause less conflicts with coastal zone stakeholders. In order for this alternative to be implemented, I'm wondering which government entity (local, state, federal) would be best to regulate these facilities? Maybe if only one type of government had control, then aquaculture could be a more viable option.

  5. Like you stated in your post, getting stakeholders to buy-in on aquaculture seems very challenging. Aquaculture has the potential to occupy an area that is already being used for activities along the busy coast. We have fishermen, recreational boaters, swimmers, and other participants of water activities sharing some of the areas best suited for aquaculture. Under these circumstances, it seems like fights over sections of water are inevitable. With that in mind, I understand why it is challenging to move forward on an aquaculture project. I also want to say that I agree with the other commenters about your take on the economics side of it. I think emphasizing the economic benefits of aquaculture would help elicit a positive response from government officials and even the public.

  6. Not knowing too much about aquaculture before reading your post, on initial thought aquaculture seemed like an obvious opportunity to gain economic benefits and answer seafood demand. I was unaware of the multidimensional effects aquaculture has on international trade relations, foreign relations, and various stakeholders. As a country that is striving for American independence in various economic sectors, I can see the benefits of pursuing aquaculture in different forms in the US. Coastal zones provide great areas to explore aquaculture, but they contain too many conflicting stakeholders and ecological risks of impacting the surrounding environment. Reading your provided information on land based and offshore aquaculture facilities, I can see how they aim to mitigate ecological risk and appease stakeholders, while reducing foreign dependence. Does either land based aquaculture or offshore aquaculture present itself as a better option economically, socially, and politically? Pursuing those options, I think the remaining battles would lie in the interests of the fishermen who feel economically and even culturally threatened and the logistical, complicated issues of intergovernmental and interorganizational cooperation and collaboration. I am aware, though, that aquaculture can be very expensive regarding investments and production costs. Would the returns of these alternatives outweigh the inputs enough to be economically beneficial?

  7. I do not know much about aquaculture but after reading your blog post I can see why aquaculture is important. I had never thought about the economic implications and how it has an effect on international trade. I think during current events this topic is really important. I liked the suggested alternatives because I think they are feasible. From reading your post, I can understand how it would be difficult to progress with aquaculture due to the fact that coastal homeowners don't want to ruin their view or how fisherman believe that it could hurt their business. There a lot of factors at play with this issue and I think you did a great job highlighting them.

  8. I like your talk on how regulation effects aquaculture. Could this new administration be helpful in expanding the aquaculture industry considering it could help the American economy? Seafood is a vey popular commodity and with decreasing fish stocks aquaculture may be the only option for seafood in the future. Short term it might be cheapest to import but I think in the long term the US should depend on itself for seafood.


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