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America is hooked on seafood imports. We need to expand aquaculture in federal waters

October 17, 2021, 11:30 AM UTC
Some forms of aquaculture, such as seaweed and shellfish farming, provide valuable services to the ecosystem.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the blue food economy, led by scientists around the world, will have an essential role to play in the shift to healthy and sustainable food systems. Blue foods include more than 2,500 species of aquatic animals and plants consumed around the world, including oysters, lobster, salmon, and seaweed.

Our nation’s seafood supply continues to be affected by climate change. Some species, including wild salmon, are particularly vulnerable to extreme heat. It’s never been more important that we have alternative ways to produce healthy protein. Yet, there is no clear permitting process or national standards for U.S. marine aquaculture in federal waters.

Today’s challenges, combined with the fact that the U.S. seafood industry relies almost solely on international imports, leaves a massive gap in U.S. trade. The worldwide demand for seafood will only continue to grow as the world population is projected to reach nine billion by 2050. This is where an expanded, well-regulated, and carefully planned American aquaculture industry can fill critical food and economic needs in the U.S. 

Aquaculture, the raising of finfish, shellfish, and other marine life, is the fastest-growing food production sector in the world and has been responsible for nearly all of the global seafood supply growth since the 1990s. With half of all seafood consumed today being farm-raised, aquaculture presents a unique opportunity to build a seafood future that can support a diverse workforce, enhance ecosystems, and provide healthy, locally sourced protein. 

Aquaculture will bring much-needed jobs to U.S. waterfront communities and beyond. Additionally, it serves as a market for land-based farmers who grow soybean, corn, peas, and other products used in fish feed. It has been demonstrated to have lower carbon outputs than some other terrestrial animal protein sources with less reliance on scarce land and water resources. Some forms of aquaculture, such as seaweed and shellfish farming, provide valuable ecosystem services such as cleaning the ocean and sequestering carbon, making them an essential step towards addressing climate change. 

Fish farming is being done sustainably around the world. It’s time for America to join the fastest growing food sector in the world. This means establishing clear definitions to ensure the species cultured are native or established, and setting up good sustainable criteria for wild-caught fish used as feed ingredients. At Sysco, we work through our international and domestic supply chains to improve seafood sustainability and responsible sourcing practices. With farmed shrimp, we are making commitments that will shape the future of seafood sourcing and entirely transform the shrimp industry. We also support sustainability programs, in which we commit to conserve natural ecosystems and protect the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on them. We encourage these types of credible sustainability programs in the aquaculture industry.

The U.S. has the technology, ocean, and land resources for aquaculture management. The single biggest reason the U.S. lags far behind in production is the lack of a clear regulatory path for permitting new projects. 

Action from Congress is needed. Legislation from federal lawmakers would establish a clear permitting process for U.S. marine aquaculture that also prioritizes the health of the environment and the health of Americans. The legislation would establish standards for aquaculture, similar to those for commercial fishing, as guiding principles for growing coastal economies and protecting ecosystems. I encourage Members of Congress to support the responsible development of American aquaculture.

By prioritizing domestic aquaculture, we support the growth of an American seafood community that is resilient to economic and climate changes and is part of a holistic approach to a greater sustainable food strategy. 

Neil Russell is the SVP Corporate Affairs and Chief Communications Officer at Sysco

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