NOAA Tacitly Approves Offshore Aquaculture in Gulf, Begins Work on National Policy

Staff Writer

To the consternation of U.S. environmental groups, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration today allowed a plan for offshore aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico to go into effect. The agency also announced that it would create a national policy for offshore aquaculture within the next few months. Environmentalists are urging Congress to give the agency the ability to enforce that policy, a power it does not possess.

Concern about the environmental damage from large, offshore aquaculture operations include pollution.

In January, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council proposed issuing 10-year permits for up to 20 large aquaculture operations in the gulf. NOAA did not take any action within 30 days, so by default the plan went into effect today. According to a letter (pdf) from James Balsiger, NOAA's acting assistant administrator for fisheries, to the gulf council, NOAA didn't want to officially approve the plan before a national policy was in place, but it also didn't want to reject it.

In any case, NOAA says that no permits can be issued until it creates a national policy that would provide "regulatory certainty for potential investors" and clarify "the scientific information needed for permitting decisions."  

A national policy is a good step, says Tim McHugh, a spokesperson for the Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. But he is worried that the de facto approval of the gulf plan will encourage other regional councils to draw up their own approaches. "You don't want [the regulation of offshore aquaculture] to be piecemeal," McHugh says. He is also concerned that NOAA doesn't have the legal authority to require regional fishery councils to follow the agency's guidelines.

On 9 September, a subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee will conduct an oversight hearing on offshore aquaculture. McHugh says a draft bill is in the works that would give NOAA authority to enforce national regulations.