Why NOAA seeks to open federal waters off Hawaii to fish farming

JANUARY 7, 2017 The federal government hopes to boost US seafood production with new fish farms.

The federal waters surrounding Hawaii may soon be opened to offshore fish farming. But recent experience in the Gulf of Mexico shows that these plans could spark a backlash.

The federal waters surrounding Hawaii may soon be opened to offshore fish farming. But recent experience in the Gulf of Mexico shows that these plans could spark a backlash.

On Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which regulates US fisheries, announced its intent to allow aquaculture in federal waters off the coast of Hawaii. Aquaculture – raising fish in captivity, rather than catching them in the wild – already takes place in ponds on the Hawaiian islands and in state waters off the coast. By expanding the practice to a nearly 200-mile-wide belt of federal waters surrounding the islands, NOAA aims to create new opportunities for seafood firms.

NOAA’s announcement comes amid a global push to expand aquaculture. Fish farms produce half of all fish consumed by humans, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in 2015, with rapid growth projected in coming decades. Some environmentalists hope that this trend can preserve marine ecosystems while providing more food for a growing human population. But others point out that aquaculture has drawbacks, such as use of antibiotics in open waters, and escapes of non-native fish into surrounding ecosystems.

These risks have already sparked opposition to aquaculture in the United States, and could threaten NOAA’s efforts in Hawaii.

"In the Western Pacific, it’s in the very early days at this point," Michael Rubino, the aquaculture program director for NOAA fisheries, told the Monitor in a phone interview, adding that Thursday’s announcement marks the start of a long process.

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