Policies & Regulation

Stringent regulations exist for aquaculture operations in the United States. While this may be helpful in some aspects, such as environmental concerns, it also makes the American aquaculture industry less viable than others.

Aquaculture programs in U.S. waters have had a difficult time getting the necessary permits to due to the high regulatory standards and requirements. Marine facilities must meet all relevant local, state, and federal regulations regarding air and water quality, food safety, and public health. Land based systems have been more successful in getting established due to higher control over factors like effluent discharge and other environmental considerations. Because of the regulatory hurdles, aquaculture facilities have been slow to grow in the U.S., and companies often choose to establish themselves other countries where the startup cost is more reasonable and efficient.

In 1980, Congress passed the National Aquaculture Act, with the intention of promoting aquaculture development and ensuring cooperation between the relevant federal agencies involved in aquaculture policy. There have been a variety of policy changes since, with initiatives to increase U.S. aquaculture prevalence, improve environmental and commercial health, and improve the quality of products produced. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is the key player in passing legislation and policies that would enable more marine aquaculture systems to emerge in U.S. waters, as well as enforcing existing regulations. NMFS has a variety of active initiatives to increase aquaculture production in the U.S. as well as make the permitting processes for national aquaculture more reasonable for private companies to navigate. For example, in 2011 NOAA began the National Shellfish Initiative to increase bivalve populations (oysters, clams, abalone, and mussels) in U.S. waters through restoration projects and commercially produced seafood products. Amongst the listed motives are water purification and nutrient removal, shoreline protection and recovery, job growth, and to meet the increasing demand for seafood proteins. NMFS also created the Aquaculture Technology Transfer Initiative to encourage technological advances to improve both the commercial and environmental performance and viability of U.S. aquaculture programs. The advances have been made in feed, cage and farming equipment, and traceability programs, and there are promising prospects for future advancements in all of these sectors in the near future.

Most recently, and significantly, the Fishery Management Plan for Regulating Offshore Marine Aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico was passed by NMFS in early 2016. This leasing program will allow up to 20 offshore aquaculture operations for 10-year periods, with the intention of promoting environmentally sustainable and economically viable production of seafood proteins. The passing of this plan was substantial because it is the first U.S. permitting process for federal waters, and gives the permitting power to a narrowed group of agencies, bypassing many of the bureaucratic tie-ups that tend to prevent aquaculture companies from gaining traction.

Due to its effects on public health, consumer health, and the natural environment, aquaculture is highly regulated under a wide range of government agencies and federal laws. The Clean Water Act, regulated by the EPA, is largely involved because of the effluent discharge from aquaculture facilities and its potential impact on the environment. There are currently no effluent guidelines for aquaculture facilities, and they must generally operate under “Section 404” special permits. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 is often cited due the prevalent threat of accidental release from aquaculture facilities, as well as the threat of disease or parasite transmittance to nearby systems. The Marine Mammal Protection Act is relevant to marine systems to prevent the take of any marine mammals, such as getting caught in buoy lines or boating operations around open water farms. The Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 requires permits for any structures in navigable waters, such as shellfish lines or floating finfish cages.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for seafood safety in the United States, including proper labeling of seafood products, and operates primarily through an oversight program: the Seafood Regulatory Program. Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) the FDA regulates the use of drugs such as antibiotics and therapeutants in aquaculture systems. This act also holds the processor or importer of seafood responsible for the product’s safety, identity, and economic integrity. The FDA is responsible for creating the list of seafood names that the industry must use uniformly in labeling seafood products. It is under the FFDCA that species substitution and mislabeling is specifically and legally prohibited. The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act is used to regulate the use of chemicals to treat for pests and applies to all crops, including fish (Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy).

The 2005 U.S. Bioterrorism Act made it mandatory for all food and feed chains supplied to be traceable back to their origins. While this has proven difficult to guarantee in the seafood supply chain, there are increased measures being taken to improve traceability, which is easier in the controlled process of aquaculture farming than it is for wild caught seafood. Advances in traceability technologies, such as those created under Aquaculture Technology Transfer Initative, have made it possible for retailers and consumers to opt for enviornmental sustainable and fresher seafood products.