Can the U.S. Close Its Seafood Trade Deficit?

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As I write in the cover story of TIME this week, we’re in the middle of a seafood transition. Once nearly all of our fish were caught wild—indeed, as Paul Greenberg has written, fish are the last wild food in a world where nearly everything else we eat comes from a farmer’s labor. But that’s changing—around half of the seafood consumed around the world starts in farms, and as seafood demand continues to grow, more and more of it will come from aquaculture. The last wild food is quickly becoming domesticated—for better and for worse.

American consumption of farmed seafood is right in line with global norms. Half our fish comes from farms as well—but not from American farms. 84% of the seafood consumed by Americans is imported, and just 5% of the farmed seafood we eat is domestic. Here’s an amazing stat: our “seafood trade deficit” is $9 billion, which as trade deficits in natural resources go is second only to crude oil. More than just about anything else on our plate, our seafood has likely traveled a long way before it arrives at our table. “It’s true that we live in a global market place, but we are concerned about the U.S. and U.S. aquaculture,” says Michael Rubino, manager of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) aquaculture program.

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Why are Americans so dependent on foreigners for their fish? Once-productive waters in regions like New England have been hit hard by over-fishing, often followed by lengthy and controversial moratoriums to allow commercial species to recover. In 2009 American fisherman hauled in 3.5 million tons worth of seafood. That’s the lightest catch since 1988, but U.S. seafood consumption keeps rising, as the taste for sushi and shrimp cocktail spreads and more of us follow medical advice to eat at least 8 oz of seafood a week for cardiovascular health. (Right now Americans eat less than half as much seafood as the government recommends—if we all ate what we’re supposed to, we’d need at least twice as much seafood have now.) American fishermen are hard pressed to keep up with domestic demand—and it wouldn’t be ecologically sustainable for long if they tried.

That leaves aquaculture, but the reality is, the U.S. doesn’t have much of a domestic fish farming industry. The bulk of U.S. aquaculture comes from freshwater farms, involving relatively low-value species like catfish and carp. Marine aquaculture—think salmon, shrimp, oysters—provides just 1.5% of U.S. seafood consumption. On a global level—where countries like China, Norway and Chile dominate—the U.S. barely registers. “You just don’t see much development in the U.S.,” says Richard Langan, director of the Atlantic Marine Aquaculture Center at the University of New Hampshire.

One reason is  cost, the same force driving manufacturing and other industries beyond American borders. Land, labor and other inputs tend to be more expensive in the U.S. than overseas—especially compared to developing markets like Southeast Asia or South America. Take Josh Goldman of Australis Aquaculture, whom I write about in this week’s cover story. Goldman came to aquaculture as a college student in the 1980s because he thought it could be a sustainable way to combat world hunger. Years later—after experimenting with a number of different species—he came across the barramundi, a Southeast Asia/Australian fish that is healthy and takes well to farming. Since 2005, he’s been raising barramundi at an indoor facility in Massachusetts, a fish factory that filters all of its water and recycles nearly all of its waste. From an environmentalist’s point of view it’s the perfect kind of fish farming, with no pollution spewing into open water. But when Goldman decided to ramp up his operations, he had to do it overseas:

Australis’ barramundi has become so popular, in fact, that Goldman has expanded production — but not in Massachusetts. While the closed recirculating system he uses in Turners Falls is an environmentalist’s dream, Goldman eventually wanted to reach a larger market at a lower cost, a step that he decided required an outdoor operation on the central coast of Vietnam. That branch, where barramundi are raised in sea cages in a protected bay, isn’t quite as green as Turners Falls, but it’s cheaper.

Land-based systems may work for more premium species, and they offer the chance to raise fish close to cities. In New York State, for instance, a company called Local Ocean produces indoor-farmed sea bass and flounder two hours from Manhattan. But such systems are still more experimental than economical. “As much as the NGOs would have loved it, [Australis] just couldn’t meet the economics of an expensive indoor environment,” says Goldman.

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American fish farmers who work along coastlines—like the salmon farmers of Maine—also face a battle over simple space. As the fishing industry in the Northeast has contracted, coastal towns that once depending on a working waterfront now rely on seasonal tourism. As it turns out, summer residents who spend big bucks on a coastal view aren’t that keen to spend their vacations looking down on a fish farm. NIMBY battles have erupted in Maine amid complaints over the pollution, noise and disruption caused by fish farms. More often than not aquaculture—a tiny industry—loses out. “People have a strong feeling about the environmental impact of aquaculture and they voice those opinions, even though they’re only summer residents,” says Sebastian Belle, the head of the Maine Aquaculture Association. “We try to be receptive to the public’s criticisms. But how do that, but continue to compete from a commercial point of view with countries that have few regulations.”

Aquaculture does have pollution issues, but for that matter, so does agriculture on land. But the U.S. agricultural lobby is incredibly powerful, while the U.S. aquaculture lobby is…pretty much nonexistent. As the new kid on the block, and a small one at that, U.S. aquaculture comes under more scrutiny than it probably deserves. Nor does it help that there has been little in the way of a national aquaculture policy, no streamlined permits. America doesn’t seem very interested in having a strong domestic aquaculture industry—but we are interested in eating more seafood. All that does is push demand overseas. “We have the luxury to displace aquaculture to another country where we don’t have to see or hear it,” says one U.S. fish farmer. “Most countries don’t have that luxury.”

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The federal government has shown signs that it wants to jumpstart the domestic aquaculture industry. Last month NOAA and the Department of Commerce finalized a new set of national aquaculture guidelines, with particular attention paid to growing shellfish production and potentially opening aquaculture in the rich Gulf of Mexico. “This is going to provide a national approach to sustainable domestic marine aquaculture,” Larry Robinson, the assistant secretary for conservation and management at NOAA, told reporters last month.”By developing sustainable domestic marine farming we increase food security, keep dollars here and support working waterfronts.”

All of those goals are possible, but it’s going to take more than official guidelines. Americans will need to decide that a domestic aquaculture industry is worth having, worth supporting—and worth the space. “”Fish farming is one of the most efficient ways to produce protein, and we can and should be doing more of it,” says NOAA’s Rubino. “But whether we choose that path remains to be seen.”

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Bryan Walsh is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.