Even prior to President Trump’s 2020 executive order expanding offshore fish farming in the U.S., aquaculture was being touted as the future of sustainable fishing. As global fish stocks continue to shrink due to overfishing, fish and shellfish farming seems like an obvious move. It’s a far more efficient way to raise meat for protein than farming chickens, pigs, and cows, which currently occupy more than 37% of the earth’s habitable land. Done right, aquaculture can help maintain healthy waterways and boost jobs and economies in the areas that serve aquacultural regions.
The history of aquaculture stretches back thousands of years. In North America, indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest region historically farmed herring eggs, octopus, clams, and salmon, while indigenous Hawaiians developed freshwater and intertidal fish ponds. Chinese fish farmers domesticated carp around 3500 BCE. Yet, if aquaculture is the past and the future, it’s also the present: Currently, half of the world’s fish and seafood is raised through aquaculture and, according to a 2023 whitepaper from the World Economic Forum, the global demand for those foods is expected to double by 2050.
Following President Trump’s executive order and a bipartisan bill supporting offshore fish farming in the House of Representatives, many American companies have been willing to bet on, and invest in, fish farming. In 2017, 90% of the seafood eaten by Americans came from other countries, and many feel it’s time for American consumers to eat fish and seafood produced and farmed here. Following the 2020 executive order, the Army Corps of Engineers issued permits for aquaculture structures in federal waters.
While the field of fish and seafood farming may be ancient, food safety experts agree that it must be held to exacting modern standards and regulation.
There are dozens of different approaches to aquaculture. For many, “fish farming” calls to mind offshore net pens—net-cages floating in open water—however, this is only one type of aquacultural technology.
Rome, Italy-based Matthias Halwart, PhD, is the sustainable aquaculture team leader for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. He says that, given the wide variety of aquaculture possibilities, the choice of system and approach must be decided according to, among other things, the species being grown, the local environment, and the investment available to farmers. “Finfish can be grown in floating cages [net pens] in freshwater lakes and rivers, brackish estuaries, or in marine coastal or offshore areas,” he says. “Mussels are grown attached to long ropes in the sea connected to floating buoys. Seaweed is also grown on long lines. Pond culture is the most widely practiced method of aquaculture, and ranges from low-intensity green water ponds with low stocking density, using fertilizer to encourage algae and plankton to grow as feed for fish, to highly intensive with formulated feed and aeration using paddle wheels or air blowers.”
Additionally, there are more technical set-ups known as recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS). “With these highly technical systems,” Dr. Halwart says, “the operators are able to manage the water temperature, water quality, and filtration, and control the chemical properties of the water through monitoring. [They] can achieve very intensive levels of production. A version of RAS can be connected to hydroponic vegetable production, called aquaponics, in which the waste water from the fish can serve as fertilizer for the plants, while, at the same time, the plants filter the water for the fish.” Dr. Halwart adds that each of these farming systems has benefits and disadvantages, and that a good system matches the needs of the farmer and the realities of the local conditions.