Please turn off your ad blocker to properly view this site. Thank you!
Protecting Our Food, Farms & Environment
toggle menu
Pacific Northwest
Hawai'i CFS

Industrial Aquaculture's Harmful Lessons

November 15th, 2022
Factory Fish Farms Are a Proven Danger—U.S. Should Stop Permitting Them
Center for Food Safety

Since the National Marine Fisheries Service's failed first attempt at permitting a brand-new offshore aquaculture industry in 2016, environmental and fishing groups' worst fears about industrial aquaculture have been realized by countries around the world. Industrial aquaculture involves cage or net pens, often made of flexible nylon or polyethylene nets, placed directly in the water, allowing for operators to directly discharge fish feed, feces, pharmaceuticals and other chemicals, and escaped fish directly into the surrounding waters. Massive fish escapes have occurred repeatedly due to weather damage to the net pens, equipment failure, and human error, wreaking havoc on ecosystems and releasing millions of farmed fish into the wild over the past few years.

The ecological hazards of industrial aquaculture have become abundantly clear. In Mowi, Scotland in January 2020, 73,600 salmon escaped from a net pen during a storm marking the third major escape in the area since October 2019. In Norway, a series of storms resulted in approximately four million escaped fish from aquaculture facilities over the past eight years. In 2018, 680,000 fish escaped from Marine Harvest Chile, and 120,000 fled from Huon Aquaculture in Tasmania in 2018. Another 109,515 fish broke out from Bakkafrost Faroe Islands in 2017. That same year, in Washington state, 260,000 farmed Atlantic salmon to escape an industrial net pen operation maintained by Cooke Aquaculture Pacific, LLC and fled into the Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean.

These early adopters of offshore industrial aquaculture have caused numerous other harmful impacts. Caging millions of genetically identical fish in confined, concentrated spaces has proven to breed parasites and disease, inducing faster evolutions of more resistant strains. Norway's wild salmon population has been cut in half since the introduction of their aquaculture industry, partially because of the spread of sea lice from farmed fished to wild salmon runs passing the net pens during their ocean migration. Studies have also shown Scotland's salmon farming industry has harmed its wild salmon populations through sea lice and other impacts. The rise of Canada's farmed salmon industry has corresponded with the region's plummeting wild salmon populations, with sea lice and other pathogens a major culprit. In the U.S., a massive viral outbreak in Atlantic salmon net pens off the coast of Bainbridge Island in 2012 led to the deaths of over one million pounds of farmed Atlantic salmon.

As a result, states and other nations have moved away from industrial aquaculture. Two countries— Denmark and Argentina—have  prohibited offshore aquaculture due to environmental impacts. And following the massive Cooke aquaculture fish escape in 2017, Washington state banned industrial aquaculture facilities that raise non-native fish. California and Oregon have similar bans in place on non-native factory fish farms in state waters.

But the U.S. government refuses to give up on this harmful industry. Instead of learning from other countries' experiences, U.S. federal agencies and industry are ramping up their efforts to launch offshore aquaculture in federal waters. Even when courts rule against these ocean fish factories, they keep pushing. In 2020, the Fisheries Service's first attempt to create a Fishery Management Plan specifically for aquaculture in federal waters fell through when the Fifth Circuit affirmed the agency does not have authority to regulate aquaculture under the Magnuson-Stevens Act. But instead of going to Congress for authorization, federal agencies resorted to individual permitting for offshore aquaculture. They handed out a Clean Water Act permit for Velella Epsilon, the nation's first offshore finfish facility in the Gulf of Mexico; a scoping notice under the National Environmental Policy Act for Pacific Ocean Aquafarms in federal waters off the San Diego coast; and a proposed Rivers and Harbors Act permit to Avalon Aquafarms offshore near Huntington Beach, California.

In May 2020, the Trump Administration used concerns over food insecurity from the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to issue an Executive Order streamlining permitting for this novel industry. This Executive Order quickly enabled the issuing of Nationwide Permit 56, a general permit under the Rivers and Harbors Act that streamlines permitting of individual finfish aquaculture operations in federal waters in the fifteen Army Corps districts that have adopted it. Many of these facilities will likely be sited in the two areas the Fisheries Service designated for aquaculture under the same Executive Order—the Gulf of Mexico and the Southern California Bight.

As industrial aquaculture in other countries has demonstrated, if this industry is allowed to move forward it will harm ocean ecosystems, fishing communities, and endangered species. Given all the risks and harms, why would the U.S. government continue pushing for this industry? There are numerous methods to practice sustainable aquaculture instead, including small-scale options such as responsible bivalve farming, sea kelp farming, or certain types of land-based recirculating systems. But the Nationwide Permit 56 is specifically designated for the opposite—massive net pens and cage designs, which directly release fish feed, feces, escaped fish, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and other harmful chemicals directly into our oceans.

To stop the U.S. government from going down this path, Center for Food Safety and a broad array of stakeholders, including commercial and recreational fishing groups and conservation organizations, today filed a challenge to Nationwide Permit 56. The permit is unlawful because, rather than wait for proper new congressional authority for its decision, the Army Corps is claiming property rights for aquaculture on the Outer Continental Shelf without congressional authorization. The decision is also unlawful because the Corps violated several keystone environmental and fisheries protection laws in making it, including the Rivers and Harbors Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

The long-term answer, though, must come from the people. The American public must take a stance against allowing special interests to repeat the same mistakes in fish production that other countries have made around the world. One way to take that stand is to become a member of Center for Food Safety so that together we can continue building a new sustainable food future.

Related News