Order Code RS21914
August 18, 2004
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Open Ocean Aquaculture
Rachel Borgatti, Intern
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
Eugene H. Buck, Specialist in Natural Resources Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
Open ocean aquaculture, defined as the rearing of marine organisms in the U.S.
Exclusive Economic Zone, is seen as a viable option for supplying consumer demand
for marine products while avoiding inshore user conflicts and addressing the growing
seafood trade deficit. However, major barriers to open ocean aquaculture include 1)
difficulties in obtaining sufficient front-end capital investment; 2) a multi-agency
permitting process; 3) technical challenges in the design and construction of facilities
able to withstand the marine environment; and 4) the social and environmental impacts
of open ocean aquaculture.
Open ocean aquaculture is broadly defined as the rearing of marine organisms under
controlled conditions in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the area that begins
generally 3 miles from the U.S. coast at the seaward boundary of state waters and extends
to two hundred miles offshore. Several terms for open ocean aquaculture are used
interchangeably, including offshore aquaculture, marine aquaculture, mariculture, and
offshore fish farming. Open ocean aquaculture facilities consist of large enclosures (e.g.,
cages, net pens) that can be free-floating, secured to a structure, or moored to the ocean
bottom. Currently-operating commercial facilities use cages moored to the ocean bottom.
Proponents of open ocean aquaculture cite the growing seafood trade deficit,
increasing prospects for employment, and avoiding inshore user conflicts as the main
rationales for increasing open ocean production. In 2002, the United States imported 55%
of its edible seafood,1 almost half coming from Asian nations. As a result, seafood is the
second largest contributor from a natural resource to the balance of trade deficit.
Advocates of open ocean aquaculture operations view it as a means to promote the
domestic seafood industry, which has some of the highest unemployment rates in the
country. However, critics point out that the high cost of tending fish far from shore means
these facilities are likely to be automated and local employment benefits may be minimal.
U.S. Dept. of Commerce, National Marine Fisheries Service, Fisheries of the United States,
2002, Current Fishery Statistics No. 2002 (Washington, DC: Sept. 2003), p. 75.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
In addition, increasing numbers of different interests such as commercial and sport
fishermen, recreational boaters, and coastal landowners are competing for use of inshore
coastal waters. Using offshore waters may also be controversial, since traditionally,
offshore and nearshore waters have been perceived to be held “in the public trust,” and
open ocean aquaculture may be perceived by some as the de facto privatization of the
Currently, two commercial open ocean facilities are operating in U.S. waters —
Cates International, Inc. cultivates moi (Pacific threadfin) near Hawaii2 and
SnapperFarms, Inc. cultivates cobia (ling) near Puerto Rico.3 Kona Blue Water Farms of
Hawaii has recently completed the permitting process and is in the process of obtaining
financing to begin constructing deepwater pens for the culture of mahimahi.4
Internationally, research and commercial open ocean aquaculture facilities are in
operation or under development in Norway, Japan, and Chile. Alaska commercial
fishermen and state officials have expressed concern over the potential environmental and
commercial impact of possible Canadian open ocean aquaculture for sablefish (blackcod),
a $10.9 million Alaskan fishery.
As part of a National Marine Aquaculture Initiative, the National Sea Grant College
Program has initiated research throughout the United States on open ocean aquaculture.5
Many species are currently being studied, including halibut, haddock, and cod at the
University of New Hampshire; black sea bass at the University of South Carolina; mutton
snapper at Universities of Miami and North Carolina; cobia at the Universities of
Virginia, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Texas; yellowtail snapper at the University of
Texas; corvina at the University of California; and bay scallops at the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Milford Laboratory in Milford, CT,
and the University of South Florida. Other research topics being investigated include
hatchery culture technologies; designs for automated feeders; culture of new species;
identification and control of diseases; development of cages and husbandry technology
for rough water environments; identification of alternative food sources; understanding
of nutrition requirements; definition of carrying capacity of offshore waters; and
development of environmental monitoring technology.
Barriers to Open Ocean Aquaculture
Four major barriers to open ocean aquaculture are: difficulties in obtaining sufficient
front-end capital investment; a multi-agency permitting process; technical challenges in
Hawaii Business at [http://www.hawaiibusiness.cc/hb32004/default.cfm?articleid=11], visited
August 12, 2004.
Snapperfarms at [http://www.snapperfarm.com/], visited July 16, 2004.
Kona Blue Water Farms at [http://www.blackpearlsinc.com/3_4.shtml], visited Aug. 5, 2004.
Helsley, Charles E., “Open Ocean Aquaculture – a Venue for Cooperative Research Between
the United States and Japan,” In: Nakamura, Y., et al. (eds.), Ecology of Aquaculture Species and
Enhancement of Stocks, Proceedings of the Thirtieth U.S. – Japan Meeting on Aquaculture
(Sarasota, FL: Mote Marine Laboratory), UJNR Technical Report No. 30, p. 1-6.
the design and construction of facilities able to withstand the marine environment; and
the social and environmental impacts of open ocean aquaculture.
Funding. New technology and high capital costs make securing funds for new open
ocean facilities difficult. In addition to capital costs, the location of the aquaculture
facilities away from shore will carry high variable costs such as fuel, transport, feed, and
equipment. NOAA anticipates submitting a draft “National Offshore Aquaculture Act”
to the Office of Management and Budget that would provide for long-term (10-, 20-, or
30-year) leasing of ocean tracts to insure a longer-term business and assist entrepreneurs
in securing financing.6
Permitting. The multi-agency permitting process leads to uncertainty for the open
ocean aquaculture industry, making it difficult to plan and finance operations. Current
permitting requires approval by five federal agencies that have oversight responsibility.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for granting water pollution
exemptions under the Ocean Dumping Act (33 U.S.C. §§1411 et seq.). The Army Corps
of Engineers has jurisdiction, because of navigation concerns, over permanent or
temporary “devices” used to explore, develop, or produce resources on or around the
seabed in federally controlled waters (33 C.F.R. Part 322). NOAA Fisheries authorizes
open ocean aquaculture operations through an exempted fishing permit, under the
authority of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (16
U.S.C. §§1801 et seq.). NOAA Fisheries also has review responsibilities under the
Marine Mammal Protection Act (16 U.S.C. §§1361 et seq.) and the Endangered Species
Act (16 U.S.C. §§1531 et seq.). The Coast Guard regulates vessel traffic and dictates
safety measures (light and signal) for aquaculture structures to ensure safe vehicle passage
under the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 (33 U.S.C. §407). The Fish and Wildlife
Service has review and commenting responsibilities for any project that may harm
threatened species under the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act (16 U.S.C. §§661 et
seq.), the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Migratory
Bird Treaty Act (16 U.S.C. §§703 et seq.). The review required under each of these five
agencies’ responsibilities can delay or result in denial of a permit. A draft “National
Offshore Aquaculture Act,” under development by NOAA for submission to the Office
of Management and Budget for review, would establish a “one-stop” permitting system
for open ocean aquaculture operators. Under the proposed measure, open ocean
aquaculture facilities would be regulated under fishery management plans by exempting
the farm-raised fish from some of the requirements normally imposed on conventional
commercial fishing. This legislation would implement a U.S. Commission on Ocean
Policy recommendation that a multi-agency aquaculture program be managed through a
new Office of Sustainable Marine Aquaculture.7
Technical Challenges. Open ocean aquaculture facilities, moored miles off the
coast in a high-energy environment, experience numerous environmental conditions,
including exposure to wind and wave action from all directions, short and steep wave
See “Aquaculture for the Future” at [http://www.pnwer.org/meetings/Summer2004/
Presentations/Chaves.pdf], visited Aug. 18, 2004.
The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy’s preliminary report, Preliminary Report of the U.S.
Commission on Ocean Policy, was available at [http://oceancommission.gov/documents/
prelimreport/welcome.html] on Apr. 27, 2004.
patterns, strong currents, seasonal anoxic (oxygen-lacking) conditions at depth, and
unpredictable ocean conditions that can prevent operators from being able to access their
cages for days to weeks. Some of the systems developed to overcome these obstacles
include using cages that are anchored deep enough below the surface to avoid wind and
wave action, that can be towed out of unfavorable conditions, or that are rigid to allow the
waves to flow through them, instead of against them.8 Universities and commercial
researchers are in the process of developing automated buoys that can monitor and feed
the fish for weeks and completely automated floating cages that would travel with the
Impacts. Some suggest that open ocean finfish aquaculture systems may encounter
fewer of the environmental issues experienced in near-shore aquaculture systems.
However, some critics of open ocean aquaculture cite a number of concerns, such as the
escape of fish, water pollution from feed and waste, and the spread of water-borne disease
from cultured to wild fish.9 Environmental groups hope that the regulations will become
more stringent, since existing regulations are not necessarily designed to address issues
specifically relating to open ocean aquaculture. NOAA Fisheries and the Gulf of Mexico
Regional Fishery Management Council reportedly are pursuing independent efforts to
provide better regulatory oversight and direction to deter poorly conceived projects.10
Open ocean aquaculture pens are open to the surrounding environment, allowing fish
feces and uneaten food to fall into the surrounding water, possibly degrading water
quality. However, current research indicates that currents keep water around fish cages
well circulated, dissipating waste products quickly, resulting in minimal impact of open
ocean aquaculture facilities on water quality.11 Critics, however, question whether the
experience with small-scale experimental facilities is relevant to future commercial
operations, which will likely need to be much larger to be profitable. A possible solution
suggested by environmental groups is to combine finfish operations with the culture of
seaweeds or bivalves to consume the excess nutrients.
Most fish currently approved for open ocean aquaculture are carnivorous and
consume large amounts of fishmeal and fish oil, which is obtained from wild fish stocks.
As a result, three or more pounds of wild fish are required to produce one pound of
farmed fish, causing some to question whether aquaculture production could exacerbate
pressures on ocean fish stocks, rather than relieving pressure.12 While this concern could
be addressed by raising more herbivorous fish, open ocean aquaculture facilities will need
Ocean Spar cages at [http://www.oceanspar.com], visited Aug. 12, 2004.
Open Ocean Aquaculture, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy at [http://www.iatp.org/
fish/library/uploadedFiles/Open_Ocean_Aquaculture.pdf], visited Aug. 4, 2004.
“Agency Sinks Proposal for Gulf Fish Farm,” St. Petersburg Times (Dec. 30, 2003) at [http://
www.sptimes.com/2003/12/30/Southpinellas/Agency_sinks_proposal.shtml], visited Aug. 4,
The University of New Hampshire’s CINEMar/Open Ocean Aquaculture Annual Progress
Report for the period 1/01/03 to 12/31/03 at [http://ooa.unh.edu/environmental/index.html],
visited Aug. 4, 2004.
Naylor, Rosamond L., et al., “Effect of aquaculture on world fish supplies,” Nature, v. 405
(June 29, 2000): 1017-1024.
to initially grow and process high-value carnivorous fish species to offset large investment
costs. Alternatives to wild fish-derived fishmeal are under investigation, such as soybased fishmeal and the culture of smaller herbivorous fish as a fishmeal source.
Another concern involves the spread of fish-borne disease and genetic anomalies that
could possibly occur if wild fish are exposed to or interbreed with hatchery-raised fish.
This issue would arise if genetically modified or non-native fish could escape from
aquaculture facilities and breed with wild fish.13 Critics claim that cultured fish are bred
to grow faster and larger than native fish; they can out-compete native fish in the short
term but often do not have the genetic heritage to survive in the wild for the long term.
This is especially a concern in states such as California, where genetically modified fish
are banned within state waters but might be grown offshore in federal waters.
Since facilities will be offshore and underwater, possible harm or disturbance to
marine mammals and other wildlife are a concern. To address these concerns, current cage
designs avoid the use of small diameter or loose lines to prevent the entanglement of sea
turtles and marine mammals in net pens and associated gear. Since net pens would be
under tension, the possibility that a turtle flipper or whale fluke would get tangled in lines
or nets is likely minimal.
At its November 2003 meeting, the Gulf of Mexico Regional Fishery Management
Council adopted an open ocean aquaculture policy for the Gulf of Mexico EEZ.14 The
Council developed this policy to encourage environmentally responsible open ocean
aquaculture, opposing the use of non-native species unless no detrimental impacts on
native species can be demonstrated and recommending that only FDA-approved
therapeutic and chemical treatments be used as part of best management practices. This
policy also contains provisions on the location, design, and operation of facilities to
prevent adverse impacts on the environment and minimize conflicts with other
stakeholders. Recently the Gulf of Mexico Regional Council completed public hearings
to review management options for open ocean aquaculture under the Magnuson-Stevens
Act and may adopt a fishery management plan amendment on this subject as early as fall
2005.15 However, some worry that management under the Magnuson-Stevens Act may
add another layer of bureaucracy, especially if the other seven regional fishery
management councils follow suit and develop their own, possibly contradictory, open
ocean aquaculture management policies.
In addition to NOAA Fisheries and the Gulf of Mexico Regional Council initiatives,
the Rigs to Reefs Act of 2003 (H.R. 2654) has been introduced to authorize the use of
Goldburg, Rebecca J., Matthew S. Elliott, and Rosamond L. Naylor, Marine Aquaculture in
the United States: Environmental Impacts and Policy Options, Pew Oceans Commission
(Arlington, VA: July 2001), p. 6-9. See [http://www.pewoceans.org/reports/137PEWAqua
cultureF.pdf], visited Aug. 17, 2004.
The Gulf of Mexico Council’s open ocean aquaculture policy is available at [http://www.gulf
council.org/downloads/mariculture_policy_GMFMC.pdf], visited Aug. 4, 2004.
69 Federal Register 7185-7186, Feb. 13, 2004.
decommissioned offshore oil and gas platforms for the culture of marine organisms. This
bill would exempt oil and gas companies from having to remove offshore production
platforms within a year of lease termination and award them tax credits for allowing their
platforms to be used for open ocean aquaculture, artificial reefs, or scientific study.
Proponents of the bill see major economic potential in establishing aquaculture operations
at decommissioned oil and gas platforms, although opponents fear that the oil and gas
industry could use the provisions of this bill to avoid the substantial costs of removing
offshore production platforms.
Limited federal funding has been provided for open ocean aquaculture. Under
NOAA’s Ocean and Atmospheric Research budget, $1.7 million was appropriated in
FY1998, followed by an additional $2.4 million each in FY1999, FY2000, and FY2001,
for the open ocean aquaculture demonstration project at the University of New
Hampshire.16 Additional funding for open ocean aquaculture research is provided through
NOAA’s National Sea Grant College Program, but the portion devoted specifically to open
ocean aquaculture cannot be determined.
09/26/1980 – The National Aquaculture Act of 1980 (P.L. 96-362, 16 U.S.C. §§2801 et
seq.) establishes a national policy of encouraging development of
aquaculture in the United States.17
09/00/1995 – Open ocean aquaculture recognized by the federal Office for Technology
Assessment as a potentially viable way to raise fish.18
00/00/1997 – The University of New Hampshire begins its Open Ocean Aquaculture
Demonstration Project, funded through Sea Grant.
00/00/2001 – Cates International, Inc. opens the first commercial open ocean aquaculture
04/20/2004 – The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy recommends that open ocean
aquaculture by streamlined and permitting be located within NOAA.
00/00/2004 – NOAA anticipates submitting a draft “National Offshore Aquaculture Act”
to the Office of Management and Budget for review.
The University of New Hampshire’s open ocean aquaculture project overview at [http://ooa.
unh.edu/overview.html], visited Aug. 5, 2004.
National Aquaculture Act of 1980 at [http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/sfa/sfweb/aqua_act.htm],
visited Aug. 5, 2004
Office of Technology Assessment, Current Status of Federal Involvement in U.S. Aquaculture,
at [http://www.wws.princeton.edu/cgi-bin/byteserv.prl/~ota/disk1/1995/9554/9554.PDF], visited
Aug. 6, 2004.