The seafood industry is at crossroads in America. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the seafood supply chain distribution, causing severe financial setbacks to suppliers and distributors. And while many businesses are starting to rebound, the U.S. seafood industry remains at a significant disadvantage: It relies almost solely on international imports. In fact, 90% of seafood that Americans consume is imported, creating a trade deficit of over $17 billion annually. The U.S. is missing an opportunity to create a competitive seafood industry with new jobs and a boost to the economy at a time when it’s needed most.
As the country reopens after the pandemic, and restaurant dining continues to increase, seafood will play a vital role in feeding America. And, the worldwide demand for seafood will only continue to grow. In fact, the Economics of Aquaculture Policy and Regulation says 40 million tons of fish will be needed to meet demand by 2030. Plus, with the world population projected to reach 9 billion by 2050, according to the National Research Council, and per capita seafood consumption on the rise, America will need a diverse set of food sources to meet these needs.
This is where an American aquaculture industry can fill critical food, nutrition and economic needs. Aquaculture — the farming of finfish, shellfish and other marine life — is the fastest growing food production sector in the world and has been responsible for nearly all of the global seafood supply growth since the 1990s. With half of all seafood consumed today being farm raised, aquaculture presents a unique opportunity to build an American seafood future that can bring us through this challenging time and support a diverse workforce, enhance sustainable ecosystems and provide healthful, locally sourced protein for Americans.
As professors at the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology in Baltimore, we see the major potential for environmentally compatible land-based aquaculture systems as well as the need to consider offshore aquaculture if the right regulatory framework can be put in place to minimize environmental impact. Research and monitoring are critical to establish and maintain high environmental standards.
An aquaculture industry can bring much needed jobs to the U.S. Those include water farmers in the working waterfront communities, workers on the production assembly line, processing, packaging and distribution positions, and sales and marketing jobs. Additionally, land farmers are needed to grow soybean, corns and peas and other products that are used in fish feed. Emerging research and technology jobs, including artificial intelligence and machine learning, which enable sustainability and measurement, are also in high demand.
As a leader in aquaculture technology and with the best managed fisheries in the world, the U.S. should lead the world in aquaculture production. The single biggest reason the U.S. lags far behind the world in production is the lack of a clear regulatory pathway for permitting new projects, particularly offshore, a challenging reality that has forced many American businesses to invest in other countries.
To remedy these challenges, action from Congress is needed. Legislation would establish a clear permitting process for U.S. marine aquaculture that also prioritizes the health of the environment and the health of Americans. Legislation would call for modern siting and monitoring technologies for both land-based and offshore aquaculture and a process for public input, which ensures that communities in areas of new infrastructure are considered prior to granting the permits. We urge Congress to support legislation that would enable responsible development of American aquaculture, including research and development.
It’s hard to argue against an increased production of sustainable and affordable seafood in American communities. Now more than ever, we need local food and local job opportunities for all Americans. Aquaculture can fill these needs, and Congress has the power to make it happen.
Yonathan Zohar is chair of the Department of Marine Biotechnology at UMBC and a professor at the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology (IMET), a research center of the University System of Maryland. Russell T. Hill is executive director of IMET and a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.