US President Donald Trump's administration is aiming to boost seafood production by expediting permits and environmental reviews for aquaculture farms, but conservationists are concerned about the marine impact. The executive order places the responsibility for farm permits outside state waters in the hands of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with the goal of completing reviews of projects within two years. However, Friends of the Earth has suggested the timeframe is not feasible and could lead to declining standards, while a directive to the Army Corps of Engineers to create a finfish aquaculture permit could lead to severe environmental damage.
Why does this matter? The executive order, introduced by the Trump Administration in early May, aims to boost the US aquaculture industry to increase food security and reduce reliance on imports – which account for around 85% of seafood consumed in the country. It is focused on increasing the efficiency of aquaculture permitting processes, which are burdensome at present, on maximising commercial fishing through regulatory reforms and on restricting certain seafood imports. The order has predictably been welcomed by US aquaculture firms. The sector has been hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and has been granted $300m in federal aid – but distribution of the funds has yet to be decided, and some have already argued they fall short of what is required for recovery. The US is subject to a complex aquaculture permitting process where facilities have to go through multiple federal agencies, which can be expensive and time-consuming. The executive order places the responsibility for farm permits outside state waters in the hands of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with the goal of completing reviews of projects within two years. In addition, it will establish two “Aquaculture Opportunity Areas” in the next year, extending this to 10 in the next four years, while opening up federal grant programmes to aquaculture. Despite the industry’s enthusiasm, some have argued the order lacks adequate environmental protections. Friends of the Earth has suggested the forced two-year timeframe for NOAA is not feasible and could lead to declining standards. The NGO and others have also suggested allowing the Army Corps of Engineers to create a standardised finfish aquaculture permit could lead to cumulative environmental damage offshore. The executive order follows the introduction of the Advancing the Quality and Understanding of American Aquaculture (AQUAA) Act to the US House of Representatives in March. Many aspects of the order are similar to the AQUAA bill, which would also establish national standards for sustainable offshore aquaculture up to 200 miles off the US coast. Despite this, Friends of the Earth are also against it – and more fundamentally the creation of “factory-style farming” facilities in the ocean. While the order and bill show a clear direction of travel for aquaculture in the US, and may give investors more certainty to develop offshore farms, it’s been highlighted it will take some years for the order’s tools to be developed, and that Congress would need to create a federal law for NOAA to be able to issue aquaculture permits. There are also questions over whether the agency actions it describes have been funded. It has also been suggested that, due to executive orders having the potential to be rescinded, more certainty would be offered if Congress adopted AQUAA. However, a previous version of the bill introduced in 2018 failed to win over conventional fishers, Democrats and environmental groups.