The amount of fish coming from the Gulf of Mexico to American plates could double in a few years thanks to a new rule from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Gulf-farmed fish could dramatically increase the amount of seafood on San Antonio menus, bring aquaculture jobs to South Texas, and help make fishing practices in the ocean much more sustainable.
In January, NOAA announced that it would start accepting permits for large-scale offshore fish farming operations in federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico. The rule change marks the first time federal waters have been approved for farming operations, and will also be the first time that many Gulf fish species will be farmed at all.
If all the available permits are granted, farms will be able to produce up to 64 million pounds annually, which is just about the same as the amount of fish that are caught wild from the Gulf each year. NOAA’s permit standards heavily emphasize sustainability, so only fish native to the region will be eligible for farming. Many experts believe varieties like red drum, cobia, and almaco jack will be most widely cultivated because they are the most compatible with the farm systems.
“In terms of the global market it’s a tiny drop in the bucket, but since farmed fish flies off the shelves domestically we’ll probably see much of it sold here in the United States,” NOAA Director of Aquaculture Michael Rubino told the Rivard Report.
That could make a big difference in the amount of sustainable fish available domestically, especially southern states like Texas. Farmed fish could also make sustainable seafood a more affordable option to consumers who want it but don’t feel it’s in their price range.
“Properly sourced and small boat fisheries that line catch in-season species are great but it’s practically impossible to make back the necessary returns (at least to keep a restaurant financially operational) with the price,” said Stefan Bowers, head chef of Rebelle and Feast in San Antonio. “It’s extremely hard to pass on the cost to the customer. Most simply won’t pay for it.”
Bowers has years of experience running restaurants and a specialty with wild fish. His background allows him to see the limited returns on marketing fish as “sustainable.”
“The seafood industry regulations are so vague and so distant from the end consumer that concern about over fishing and maintaining humane practices combined with balanced harvesting is abstract and difficult to comprehend,” Bowers said. “This leads to little if any concern by those that drive the market, the end consumer.”
It’s possible that offshore farms may simplify things for those consumers. Farms that meet the new requirements will have to be much more stringent than those that catch wild fish, and with a maximum of 20 farms they will be much easier to keep track of than the thousands of wild fishing companies. For sustainability advocates, it’s a step in the right direction.
Out of all of the Gulf states, areas off the coast of Texas and Florida seem to the most appealing for large scale fish production.
“Texas has been waiting for this opportunity, ” said Kevan Main, Director of the Center for Aquaculture Research at Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida. “Some of the early work in offshore aquaculture was done there, tied to research on oil rigs. Texas and Florida will probably be the major focal points in developing this technology.”
For this technology, said NOAA’s Rubino, the location has to be just right.
“The challenge is that most of the Gulf is pretty shallow until about 10-20 miles out which isn’t the best for fish farms because of river runoff,” Rubino said. “Fish farms tend to like places where there is a more stable environment. One of the best spots will probably be off the coast of Brownsville in Texas where water depth and quality are right where you’d want them.”
That could eventually mean hundreds or thousands of jobs in South Texas building, maintaining, harvesting, distributing, selling, and working with offshore fish. Some existing farms overseas are already planning their applications to expand operations in the Gulf. NOAA expects fish farms to be operational about two years after permits are granted, with increasing production throughout the 10 year span of the initial permit.
Neil Anthony Sims has been an offshore fish farmer for over 30 years. Right now, he and his partner Michael Bullock are based in Hawaii and their company, Kompachi Farms, operates off the coast of Mexico.
“Because the United States waited so long to begin fish farming operations in the Gulf, we built and focused on Mexican production,” Sims said. “There’s still a rigorous permitting process, but they get the necessity of aquaculture. In the long term, there is great opportunity in United States Gulf territory, and we are beginning the exploration process now that NOAA has released its new permitting opportunities.”
Environmentalists generally have mixed feelings about fish farming. There have been incidents of containment breaches that led to invasive species, disease build-up because of dense populations, and problems with too much concentrated fish waste in shallow waters which can cause algal blooms and dead zones.
NOAA’s new farms should avoid those problems, however. Since species must be native, any possible containment breach would be inconsequential.
“Big currents and deep water in federal waters mean there will be good circulation to prevent disease and that there is a lot of potential to have those waste nutrients absorbed by the environment easily without having dangerous algae buildup,” Main said.
More data and improved cages are some of what the federal government was waiting on before announcing their rule change. For example, hurricanes that sweep through the sea won’t damage new farm models.
“If there’s a storm coming in, they can now drop the cage down. Cages anchored in place can move around vertically to service, stock, harvest, maintain, and secure the systems,” Main said.
These new farming techniques make the open ocean much more profitable, and that will make aquaculture more sustainable by opening up waters further away from the coast. Commercialization of these techniques, developed and improved in the Gulf, can be exported around the world to make global oceans more sustainable.
Sims concluded our interview with wistfulness and gravity.
“The global seafood crisis is not confined to the United States,” he said. “For us to be importing over 90% of our seafood, we’re the hogs of seafood on the planet. We need to carry our own weight to alleviate the pressure on the oceans, to provide an alternative to other animal proteins, and eventually to export the technology and companies we build and create success with in the Gulf.”
*Top image: Divers around the open-ocean aquaculture cage at the Cape Eleuthera Institiute in The Bahamas. Photo by Kelly Martin.