Hunters & Farmers of the Ocean

I read a fascinating article in Undercurrent News titled, ‘Wild fish harvesters rally to fight US aquaculture push in new Congress’. The article was about legislative activity in the US Congress to create a regulatory framework for aquaculture and focused on the opposition of this activity by ~140 ‘wild fish harvesters’.

The fishermen are framing their objection to aquaculture legislation as a principled stand because the industry pollutes the oceans and is a threat to wild fish stocks. Both of those statements have an element of truth to them. However, they are precisely the reasons we need real aquaculture regulation in place. We need to create a system that promotes practices and technologies that minimize environmental damage while creating economic opportunities for coastal communities. The legislation the fisherman are fighting will create a mechanism to license ocean aquafarms and a regulatory structure to make sure they operate in a way that doesn’t impact the environment.

In their letter to Congress, the opposition sort of admits that the real issue is aquaculture ‘challenges the economic viability of commercial fishing’ and ‘creates cheaper competition for their products.’ I sure hope it does! Today the aquaculture industry is more efficient and more productive than ocean fishing, which has driven >90% of wild fish populations at or beyond their sustainable limits. The advantages of aquaculture are only going to grow as we learn even more and use better technology.

The US has more than 12,000 miles of coastline and a coastal economic zone of interest of more than 2,000,000 square miles. We lead the world in the application of technology to solve pressing problems. Yet with all these advantages, we produce only about 1% of the world’s farmed aquatic products. As a result, rather than being a major supplier of fish to the world the way we are for corn, wheat, soy, and other agricultural products, last year we imported more than $21B of seafood, or in other words, we imported >91% of our seafood. That makes about as much sense as Alaska needing to import ice.

Another fact: Today aquaculture provides as much protein as wild fish farming world wide, and it is expected to supply 70% or more within 20 years. Every day we wait to take action is a day we fall further behind in an industry that represents the fastest growing source of protein and one with the potential to create tens of thousands of jobs. A strong and productive US aquaculture industry can be an active participant in the “blue revolution” that will put an end to food insecurity globally.

I was trying to think of a historical analogy to where we are on this topic. In the early 19th century, as pioneers migrated west on the North American continent, economic activity was initially centered on beaver pelts and buffalo hunting. A few thousand intrepid hunters and trappers were able to make a living from this, but the benefit to the world was arguably limited. Gradually farmers moved in, cleared land, and began to plant crops. Today, America’s agricultural sector is a bread basket to much of the world, exporting >$150 billion worth of agricultural products every year to feed the world. The hunters and trappers disappeared and are now just part of our romantic past.

But what if the hunters and trappers had somehow managed to convince Congress that farming posed a danger to their livelihood and bison habitat and forced Midwest farmers to stop growing corn, soybeans, and wheat? Would the world be a better place? I don’t think so. We are at a ‘hunters and trappers versus farmers’ moment today in how we use the ocean. This global transition from ocean hunting to ocean farming is already well underway. The choice we face is: It going forward using new technology and science to grow exponentially more food with our ocean resources a better option, or should we hang on to a fading past?

A last thought. This doesn’t have to be a us-versus-them thing. The “hunters of the ocean” are already well equipped with the required skills to be the leaders of aquaculture today. They possess a deep understanding and love of the ocean, a desire to provide nourishment to their communities and beyond, as well as an inherent understanding of the vagaries of the seafood markets.

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