Gulf of Mexico Fish Farming Plans Still in the Works Despite Federal Ruling

Gulf of Mexico Shrimp (Photo via National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Southeast Regional Office)

NEW ORLEANS (CN) — A plan by the Trump administration to farm thousands of fish in the Gulf of Mexico in vast metal nets appears to be advancing despite an opinion last month from the Fifth Circuit stopping it.

By an Aug. 3 order, the appellate court blocked recently enacted federal rules that would have allowed fish farming for the first time in the Gulf of Mexico. Weeks later, however, on Aug. 20, the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration announced federal waters off of Southern California and the Gulf of Mexico were chosen as “aquaculture opportunity areas” to advance the president’s executive order on fish farming.

The size and specific locations for the aquaculture sites have not yet been determined, the announcement said.

“Naming these areas is a big step forward,” Chris Oliver, Assistant Administrator for NOAA Fisheries said in the agency’s announcement. “The creation of Aquaculture opportunity Areas will foster the U.S. aquaculture industry as a needed complement to our wild capture fisheries. This type of proactive work creates opportunities for aquaculture farmers and maintains our commitment to environmental stewardship.”

In the meantime, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to hasten aquaculture permitting by paring down the public and agency review process for permit applications.

In May, Trump signed an executive order that said it is the federal government’s policy to “identify and remove unnecessary regulatory barriers” that would restrict aquaculture in federal waters.  

Environmental and commercial fishing groups, however, say they are wary of aquaculture, over concerns of pollution and disease that is typical from farms and over concern for how farms would impact wild caught fishers. 

Last month’s 2-1 ruling said NOAA does not have the authority to decide on the existence of or to regulate aquaculture.

Environmental groups as well as commercial fishers celebrated the decision as a victory in a long battle to hold off aquaculture in federal waters.

“We consider whether a federal agency may create an ‘aquaculture,’ or fish farming, regime in the Gulf of Mexico” under the 1976 federal Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the opinion written by Circuit Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan, a Trump-appointee, said.

“The answer is no. The Act neither says nor suggests that the agency may regulate aquaculture. The agency interprets this silence as an invitation, but our precedent says the opposite: Congress does not delegate authority merely by not withholding it.”

The opinion continued: “‘Harvesting,’ we are told, implies gathering crops, and in aquaculture the fish are the crop. That is a slippery basis for empowering an agency to create an entire industry the [Magnuson-Stevens] statute does not even mention. We will not bite. If anyone is to expand the forty-year-old Magnuson-Stevens Act to reach aquaculture for the first time, it must be Congress.”

But NOAA officials say the ruling only blocks regulations on offshore aquaculture under the act, while other laws give the practice a go-ahead.

“The ruling is not a prohibition on marine aquaculture, neither nationally nor in the Gulf of Mexico, and we will continue to work with stakeholders through existing policies and legislation to increase aquaculture permitting efficiency and predictability,” a NOAA spokesman said in an email to the New Orleans Advocate newspaper.

Federal agencies are working in an indirect approach to meet the Trump administration’s goals, Marianne Cufone, executive director of the New Orleans-based Recirculating Farms Coalition, a group that opposes offshore aquaculture told the Advocate. 

Cufone, who also serves as director of Loyola University’s Center for Environmental Law, told the newspaper that while one agency might, for instance, grant a permit to release a certain amount of pollution and another might approve a farm’s location and design, the actual permit to operate the offshore farm still would not be allowed under the Fifth Circuit’s ruling.

“No agency has been given the authority to permit these facilities to operate,” she said, adding that operation would still require an act by Congress.

“It’s troubling that [NOAA] is so proactively pursuing the creation of an industry that is unwanted and unpopular with the public,” Cufone said.

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