January 27, 2014
First, most seafood consumed in the U.S. (91 percent!) is imported from other countries, many of which have much less stringent standards for environmental protection. Second, there is a limited supply of wild-caught seafood, as wild fisheries are at capacity or in decline, and they cannot keep up with the growing demand for seafood. And finally, as a result of this trouble with fisheries, aquaculture production has been growing rapidly and now accounts for about half of all seafood consumed worldwide. The U.S. faces a large (~ 10.4 billion dollars) seafood trade deficit, and is seeking to make up for it by developing a robust domestic marine aquaculture industry.
Global fishing practices are endangering marine mammals.
A recent report from the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that most of the wild seafood imported to the U.S. is in violation of a federal law called the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), and approximately 650,000 marine mammals are being killed or severely injured every year by fishing gear. While the law is enforced for domestic fisheries, a provision of the law that applies to imported seafood that requires proof of fishing technology use that reduces injuries or deaths to marine mammals has never been enforced.
The U.S. wants to grow the aquaculture industry.
Only about five percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. comes from domestic aquaculture because the industry is so small. The Department of Commerce is seeking to expand the marine aquaculture industry, including offshore aquaculture facilities sited away from coastal regions. NOAA (which operates within the Department of Commerce) released a detailed report last month titled “Marine Cage Culture & The Environment,” which concluded that certain types of marine finfish aquaculture are sustainable and have minimal impacts on the marine environment if they follow best-practice standards (the report focused on finfish farming, which is quite different than shellfish farming). The report focuses on impacts to the immediate environment surrounding a fish farm, but not on wider sustainability issues, occupational health, food safety, or social factors. It is also important to keep in mind that marine finfish often require feed made with fishmeal and fish oil, which are produced from small wild fish, which are an important link in the aquatic food chain and can be overfished. R&D has led to the creation of feed formulations that require less fishmeal and fish oil, and are getting close to formulating fully vegetarian feeds (which may not have nutritional benefits such as omega-3s associated with some types of seafood).
There is cause for optimism because consumers are becoming more environmentally conscious, and rising demand for responsibly sourced seafood can push the industry to adopt practices that reduce negative impacts from wild and farmed seafood production. Additionally, robust requirements for best practices, monitoring, and transparency should be required to allow stakeholders and the public to assess the impacts from coastal and offshore finfish aquaculture. Growing ecologically responsible aquaculture in the U.S., including recirculating and aquaponics systems, could reduce our seafood imports and put pressure on countries to adopt more stringent standards if they want to compete with U.S. seafood.
Photo of New Zealand sea lion by Karora.