Why Your Fish Is Foreign

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I’ve been researching the global aquaculture industry—which included a trip to lovely Turner Falls, Massachusetts—for an upcoming magazine piece. I’ll have more on that later, but I wanted to point to the new national aquaculture policy—download a PDF here—that was released today by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Department of Commerce. (For reasons that have something to do with President Richard Nixon being pissed off at Interior Secretary Wally Hickel, the agency in charge of our oceans policy is in the Commerce Department, not Interior.)

The new national policy itself is a little vague—the focus is on encouraging “sustainable aquaculture,” but doesn’t really do much to define what that might be. (It’s an open question for scientists as well.) But right now, it doesn’t even matter that much, because the domestic fish farming industry in the U.S. is tiny. Approximately 84% of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported—and about half of that comes from fish farming. (Fish farming itself has grown by more than 8% a year since the mid-1980s, and today just about half the seafood consumed globally is grown in a farm, not caught by a fisherman, a proportion that will only continue to grow.) Domestic fish farming produces just 5% of the seafood consumed in the U.S. The global aquaculture industry is dominated by Chilean and Norwegian salmon farms, tilapia operations in South America, Chinese shrimp farms. As a result, the U.S. runs a trade deficit of $9 billion in seafood.

The new aquaculture policy is meant in part to help close that gas gap, as Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said in a statement:

Encouraging and developing the U.S. aquaculture industry will result in  economic growth and create jobs at home, support exports to global markets, and spur new innovations in technology to support the industry.

But part of the reason that countries like Chile, China and Honduras are able to supply inexpensive seafood to American eaters is because of lower environmental standards. (Though low labor costs and cheap land help too, just as they would in any manufacturing business—and aquaculture is really as much manufacturing as it is farming, with fish as the final product.) It’d be great to see the domestic aquaculture industry grow—as long as it doesn’t put the U.S. into a race to the bottom. No one wins then.