Offshore aquaculture, also known as open-ocean aquaculture is an emerging approach to fish farming. UF/IFAS and Florida Sea Grant have been conducting research to determine the feasibility of offshore aquaculture of marine finfish in the U.S., particularly in the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf Aquaculture Plan allows up to 20 offshore aquaculture operations to be permitted in federal waters of the Gulf over a 10-year period. The purpose of the plan is to maximize benefits to the U.S. by establishing a regional permitting process to manage the development of an environmentally sound and economically sustainable aquaculture industry in federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
With funding from Florida Sea Grant, Dan Benetti, an aquaculture researcher at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science has been evaluating the environmental impacts of offshore aquaculture to Gulf waters. His research shows that when done responsibly, the environmental impacts are minimal.
Benetti was recently funded by NOAA for a three-year project which aims to create an affordable supply of seed through advances in hatchery technology for economically important marine fish species–red snapper, Nassau grouper and hogfish.
“Unlike terrestrial agriculture producers who have access to a variety of seed sources with data-supported optimal growth conditions, current and prospective aquaculture producers do not have access to reliable commercial-scale quantities of tropical marine fish species for land-based or offshore aquaculture operations,” Benetti said.
He adds that in order to grow the marine aquaculture industry in the U.S., development of commercially available seed stock sources are needed as well as new technology to live-ship seed stock.
“This project aims to resolve these issues and will allow for commercial producers to have access to low-cost, reliable supplies for the culture of a variety of native marine finfish,” Benetti said.
“These results will likely be felt throughout the fishing community as it may help relieve pressure on wild stocks without negative economic impacts associated with reducing catch.”
Florida Sea Grant researcher Neil Anthony Sims, CEO of Kampachi Farms is funded for one year to lead a net pen demonstration project in the Gulf of Mexico as an educational platform for policymakers, the public and fishing interests. The net pen will float at the surface off the coast of southwest Florida, and will house one of the native marine fish species from Benetti’s project.
The pen is a pilot project only. In 2016, NOAA Fisheries finalized a rule that would allow commercial aquaculture operations to be permitted in U.S. federal waters in the Gulf, and to date, no applications have been received, according Jess Beck-Stimpert, an aquaculture coordinator with NOAA Fisheries.
“This demonstration pen would therefore be the only permitted structure in Gulf waters,” said Beck-Stimpert.
Sims has successfully deployed similar demonstration fish farming pens off the coast of Hawaii. The project will require a short-term Exempted Fishing Permit, which allows for these types of small-scale projects in the Gulf.
One of the major barriers to expanding open ocean aquaculture commercially in the Gulf of Mexico has been its arduous permitting process, Sims said.
“NOAA recognized that marine aquaculture regulations are complex, involving multiple agencies, laws, regulations, and jurisdictions,” Sims said. “Permitting processes are time-consuming and difficult to navigate and highly discouraging to entrepreneurs and investors.”
While maintaining the demonstration net pen operation, Sims and his team will also be actively pursuing an application for a commercial aquaculture permit in the Gulf of Mexico and document the process as a reference for future applicants.
“We will work with the various agencies to identify areas needing further regulation clarification of agency requirements, or elimination of efforts or other redundancies,” Sims said. “We will make our documentation readily available for future aquaculture industry applicants to use as a template.”