Why the US Lags in Aquaculture

Why the US Lags in Aquaculture

It was a big honor for us when we were featured on TIME’s cover story, ‘The Future of Fish’.

Bryan Walsh, TIME’s  senior environmental reporter, did a great job of letting the world know what  drove many of us to become fish farmers in the first place—the ambition to supply the most ecologically efficiently produced food to a resource constrained world. As the article made clear, many aqua farmers are finding innovative ways to use less wild fish in their feed and integrate alternative crops where what was formally waste becomes a valuable input for another crop.

In a related blogpost, Bryan delves into a question that has long fascinated me: why so much of our seafood is imported. While the decline of US fisheries and subsequent conservation efforts has played a major role, we’ve now reached the point where fully 84% of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported. But even more surprising is the fact that in a world where half of fish is now raised on farms, the US only grows a minuscule 5% of the farmed seafood we eat—resulting in an annual trade deficit exceeding $9 billion (second only to oil amongst natural resources).

So it begs the question, why does the US Lag in Aquaculture?

A wide variety of reasons are cited in an effort to explain why the US hasn’t developed more domestic aquaculture or kept pace with other countries.  Aquaculture’s lack of political clout and the lure of lax environmental regulations in developing countries are the most commonly cited reasons.

While these factors undoubtedly play a role, I think the biggest issue is much more fundamental: North America simply lacks the world’s best species of fish to farm.

Look at agriculture, where there are literally tens of thousands of species that we could raise but we’ve chosen—over the long swath of history and all around the world—to grow just a few. Why?  Only the rarest of species have the ideal combination of traits that make them suitable for domestic life with humans. The history of agriculture has been about finding the ‘rarest of the rare’ and aquaculture is no different.  In today’s world, where it’s no longer acceptable to move species across geographies without regard for the environment, we have to be even smarter and more selective.

So, instead of blaming policy makers or assuming that aquaculturists are fleeing to less regulated locations, let’s remember that it’s the characteristics of the animals we farm that is the main driver of the decision of what to grow and where to farm. Selecting the best fish to raise makes a lot of sense, now more than ever.