Moving U.S. Marine Aquaculture Forward: The Gulf Aquaculture Plan

By Dr. Kevan Main, Senior Scientist at Mote Marine Laboratory

Photo above: Credit Giles Lemarchand.


The worldwide demand for seafood continues to grow, yet U.S. marine aquaculture (fish farming) produces far less seafood than aquaculture in Asia, Europe, Canada, Central and South America. More than 91 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported. In 2011, the U.S. seafood trade deficit was $11.2 billion — second only to the trade deficit for oil. 

Now, a new federal rule is poised to help the U.S. decrease that deficit by farm-raising more sustainable, domestic seafood in the Gulf of Mexico.

On Jan. 11, 2016, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced the publication of a groundbreaking rule implementing the Fishery Management Plan for Aquaculture in Federal Waters of the Gulf of Mexico (Gulf Aquaculture Plan).

The rule is a major step forward because it allows for large-scale fish farming in offshore, federal waters of the Gulf — beyond state waters where U.S. aquaculture has historically remained — while requiring the new offshore operations to obtain federal permits. The permitting process includes “comprehensive safeguards to ensure healthy oceans and coasts and considers other uses of ocean space, such as fishing,” according to NOAA. The Gulf Aquaculture Plan is the first of its kind in the U.S., and it could set an example for successfully expanding sustainable aquaculture in other areas of our federal waters.

Mote Marine Laboratory scientists are paying close attention to this unfolding story: The new federal rule opens doors for increasing seafood production using the kinds of sustainable and economically sound aquaculture practices that Mote researchers have been studying and developing independently for years.

Farming fish in the ocean is not new, but doing so sustainably is critical for future growth. Coastal farming of salmon in the fjords of Norway began in the late 1960s and has expanded throughout Norway, Chile and North America (Canada, Maine and Washington). However, concerns about impacts of salmon farming on wild salmon stocks and the environment have limited the growth of coastal fish farming in the U.S. In the 1990s, novel designs for large cages were developed, allowing cages to be fully submerged in waters deeper than 100 feet and located in high-energy, open ocean sites and minimizing environmental impacts. 

The development of offshore aquaculture in the U.S. has been under way for more than 10 years. Careful planning and numerous opportunities for public input have led to a process to facilitate the growth of an environmentally sound and economically sustainable aquaculture industry in the Gulf of Mexico. The new federal permit requires the culture of marine fish native to the Gulf, ongoing monitoring and reporting of water quality conditions and monitoring potential impacts of offshore cage farming on protected species.

The new federal plan will allow up to 20 offshore aquaculture operations to be established in the Gulf’s federal waters over 10 years. These offshore cage farms can raise numerous coastal, reef and pelagic (open-water) marine fishes. These farms will provide new jobs in offshore and land-based support operations, including hatcheries, feed production, processing and seafood marketing. These new jobs will support coastal communities and provide international trade opportunities. Land-based hatcheries will need to be developed to produce the fingerling fish (juveniles) to stock the cage systems. The technology exists to produce some of these fishes, including red drum (redfish), cobia, mahi-mahi and certain snapper species. However, research must be conducted to develop and improve hatchery technologies for grouper, red snapper and amberjack.

Over the past 15 years, Mote’s aquaculture scientists have been conducting research to develop innovative and sustainable technologies for raising red drum, Florida pompano, greater amberjack, common snook and red snapper to support enhancement of wild stocks and to produce juvenile fish for both land-based recirculating and offshore cage farms. Our 200-acre Mote Aquaculture Park is a recirculating facility that recycles 100 percent of saltwater used to raise fish, while using fish wastes as fertilizer for salt-loving plants.

The opportunity is finally available to develop offshore cage farms in the Gulf of Mexico, meaning that our research has a greater role to play than ever. Mote’s aquaculture research is carried out with partners at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, University of Maryland Baltimore County, University of South Florida, University of Florida and Stirling University in Scotland. We have focused on developing methods to mature, spawn and rear larvae and fingerling marine fish in recirculating aquaculture systems — a critical requirement to produce fish sustainably for offshore farming.

Offshore farms have the potential to generate significant quantities of marine fish to meet the growing demand for high-quality, domestically farmed seafood. To help this happen, much more work is needed to develop hatchery production technologies for Gulf marine fishes. At Mote, we are excited to advance the science and technology that will help environmentally sustainable aquaculture feed our growing population.