The Future of Sustainable Aquaculture

Atlas of The Future’s Aquapod stationed in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez

Florinda Cardoso- Natural Resources Conservation

Lauren Moura- Animal Science

Louie Huang- Building Construction Technology

Trevor Mackowiak- Environmental Sciences


From grilling it at home to ordering a fancy sushi platter, seafood is a versatile and staple protein for many diets around the world and is growing in demand as the world’s population increases. As demand increases, commercial fisheries become more industrialized, and the industry is heavily reliant on artificial aquaculture systems to raise fish such as salmon. History has shown us time and time again that industrialization often comes at the cost of our ecosystems. We do not want history to repeat itself as we tackle the issue of feeding our growing population. However, in its current state of onshore, shallow water fisheries, salmon aquaculture may be leading environmental degradation.

We all know that animals produce waste, and dealing with said waste is an integral part to any form agriculture. The same applies to the salmon raised in aquaculture operations. The waste they produce, known as effluent waste, is a combination of fecal matter and excess feed, which eventually settles on the floor causing sediment enrichment of carbon and nitrogen (Holmer et al., 2005, p. 183). Ecosystems usually have the natural ability to recycle these nutrients out of the sediment and disperse it back into the surrounding environment, though this process only works up to a certain capacity. If the rate of nutrient addition is greater than recycling in the ecosystem, the nutrients accumulate and result in negative impacts. (Holmer et al., 2005, p. 194). This affects us by contaminating our shores where we indulge in recreational activities such as fishing, enjoying the beach, etc., resulting in areas on shore being closed off from public use.

Current aquaculture systems in the United States are typically found near shore. Salmon farmers house their fish in pens that float on the surface of the water. These pens can be 90 feet across and 60 feet deep, and they can hold tens of thousands of salmon which clearly produce a lot of waste (Foley). The large volume of these near shore pens contribute to the sediment enrichment issue. With the pens reaching a depth of 60 feet, the bottom of the pens are close to the floor of the shallow waterways in which they are located. With such minimal distance between the pen and the floor of the waterway, there is little water flow to carry waste away from the vicinity and it all settles within a short distance of the pen. Over time the waste accumulates to unsustainable quantities.

The degree of pollution can be measured by total nitrogen (TN) and total organic carbon (TOC). Elevated levels of TOC and TN indicate that the body of water in question is polluted by effluent waste (Whitehead, 2018). Bannister et al. (2014) measured the TOC levels in the sediments immediately below salmon cages at near shore facilities, compared with the levels at reference locations. They concluded that TOC levels were 50% higher in the sediment at the farming locations than they were at the reference sites (Bannister et al., 2014, p. 41). The study concluded that sediment in the immediate vicinity of the cages was significantly more polluted than the sediment at the reference locations (Bannister et al. 2014).

The biggest impact that effluent waste from salmon farms has on sediment composition stems from the process of eutrophication, which has negative effects on aquatic wildlife and vegetation. Eutrophication is when a body of water receives an excess of nutrients typically from residential life, urban runoff, or agricultural practices like aquaculture operations (Bowman et al., 2017, p.  249). The excess nutrients disposed into the water from salmon aquaculture systems benefit some primary producers, allowing them to reproduce at a high volume which cause algae blooms. That said, this abnormal volume of algae is not sustainable, and the algae will eventually die. Bacteria feed on this dead organic matter and use dissolved oxygen to do so. Since there is a lot of dead algae, bacteria will feed rapidly while simultaneously using up dissolved oxygen in the water.  The decrease of dissolved oxygen leads to the death of many other aquatic organisms in the area. This change in abundance of primary producers negatively influences species higher up the food chain which will result in a decrease in populations of vegetation and various fish species (NOAA, 2018).

Eutrophication is triggered if the TN concentration of the waterway exceeds 0.80mg/L (Xu et al., 2015, p. 1051). The Changshou Reservoir in China experienced a high level of eutrophication and Sheng et al. (2006) concluded that it was due to the reservoir’s above average density of salmon aquaculture operations. They measured the concentration of TN in the reservoir during the month of October from 1999 to 2001 and found the average level it to be 2.32mg/L (Zhang et al., 2006, p. 93). This level of pollution exceeds the capabilities of the ecosystem to recycle these nutrients, and eutrophication became increasingly likely.

While eutrophication may seem like soley an environmental issue, it has the potential to cause major economic losses. Eutrophication causes fish kills, which can decrease the fish stock significantly or, in the most extreme cases, removes them from ecosystem entirely. Such an event happened in Hong Kong in 1998. Eutrophication wiped out 90 percent of the entire stock of Hong Kong’s fish farms and resulted in an estimated economic loss of $40 million USD (Eutrophication and Hypoxia Impacts). Similarly, in the 1980’s the Black Sea ecosystem was in decline due to eutrophication. The increase in nutrients combined with fairly shallow water lead to massive fish kills. This left the ecosystem susceptible to disturbances which ultimately lead to extensive losses in Turkish fishing industries (Bowman et al., 2017, p. 250). In order to protect the economic performance of nations which rely on aquaculture, eutrophication must be kept to a minimum.

If aquaculture farms are planned with the recycling capacity of the ecosystem in mind, nutrient enrichment can be greatly diminished. While conventional aquaculture practices produces waste that results in nutrient enrichment of sediment (Carroll et al., 2003, p. 173), an emerging practice known as offshore aquaculture could be the solution. Offshore aquaculture is the practice by which cages made up of nets are placed 3-200 miles offshore (NOAA, 2016) in depths ranging from 82ft-328ft (Kapetsky, Aguilar-Manjarrez, & Jeness, 2013, p. 3). As depth of the waterway increases, the rate of the current does as well. As the rate of the current increases, there is greater dispersion of organic nutrients (Gentry et al., 2016). Carroll et al. (2003) recorded the current speeds at varying depths of salmon farms and found that at depths of less than 82ft the current speed was less than 1.2in/s, depths between 82ft and 164ft the current speed was 1.6in/s-2.4in/s, at depths between 164ft and 246ft the current speed was 2.8in/s-3.9in/s, at depths of greater than 246ft the current speed was 3.9in/s-9.8in/s. They measured the TOC at the varying classes and found that the higher the depth and current speed the lower the TOC. For example, salmon farms at depths less than 82ft had TOC levels between 34mg/g and 41mg/g, while farms at depths greater than 246ft had TOC levels of less than 20mg/g (Carroll et al., 2003, p. 169). By planning the facilities offshore, and therefore at greater depths, water currents around the facilities are much greater than when compared to inshore farms . This allows the settling of effluent waste to spread out over a larger area, thus keeping the sediment composition directly below the farms from becoming heavily polluted (Gentry et al., 2016, Carroll et al. 2003). By increasing the dispersal range of effluent waste, biological life around the farms are better able to naturally recycle the nutrients. With less polluted waters and adequate dissolved oxygen, all fish are able to live healthier lives.

In order to raise fish in open waters, designers have to make a cage that is able to withstand the force of open ocean waves (Arnold, 2006). Companies like InnovaSea have achieved this and already began capitalizing on the offshore structures, their SeaStation and Aquapod (Innovasea, n.d) offer two options for aquaculture farmers. The Aquapod is a spherical arrangement of triangular net panels fastened together that allows the pod to withstand a variety of conditions and hold a diversity of species (Innovasea, n.d).  This fish farm pod looks like something out of a sci-fi movie, whereas the SeaStation appears to be a more conventional and cost effective solution. China recently constructed a farm similar to InnovaSea’s SeaStation, the structure is 125 feet high, holds 1.76 million cubic feet of volume, and can generate 1,500 tonnes of salmon per season (every 2 years) (Tang, 2018). The cage is planned to be installed in the Yellow Sea, 130 nautical miles east of Rizhao (Tang, 2018) and the depth can be adjusted from 13-164 feet accordingly to optimal temperature conditions for the salmon and effluent waste dispersal (Tang, 2018). Estimates show that offshore aquaculture in the Yellow Sea will support a $15.7 billion industry (Tang, 2018) and will ease pressures on near shore farming (Tang, 2018).

The United States was ranked number 1 in global offshore aquaculture development potential by the Food and Agriculture Organization for The United Nations (Kapetsky, Aguilar-Manjarrez, & Jeness, 2013, p. 26) The ranking is on the basis of ocean areas encompassing 2-300 miles away from the shoreline of the country’s land masses with suitable depths, current speeds, and cost effectiveness based on travel time and accessibility (Kapetsky, Aguilar-Manjarrez, & Jeness, 2013, p. xv). We urge that the United States develops a process for developing offshore aquaculture in our homewaters. Failure to set up the proper framework for offshore aquaculture development will result in loss of a massive economic opportunity, damage to the environment, and a higher potential for unregulated seafood. Allowing effluent waste to disperse in offshore waters will spread the waste in a greater area rather than it being condensed onshore. You may now be thinking of the popular propaganda slogan from the 1970’s, “the solution to pollution is dilution.” In many cases this slogan is inaccurate but in this case it can be taken with a grain of salt. With the waste from salmon aquaculture systems spread over a greater area, a greater amount of biological life is able to naturally recycle the contaminants out of the water system.

In 2015 the average United States citizen ate 15.5 pounds of fish (Gewin, 2017) and in 2016 the United States imported more than 2.5 million tons of edible fish (Lester et al., 2019) that amounts to 90% of the market value, half of that coming from aquaculture in other countries (Lester et al., 2018). The U.S. exports half of its wild caught seafood (Knapp & Rubino, 2016, p. 214) though even if it did not export, the supply would be insufficient for the domestic market (Knapp & Rubino, 2016, p. 214). The United States fish consumption has gone up while its amount of catch has remained the same (Gewin, 2017) this has become a global trend. The World Bank predicts that by 2030, two-thirds of fish eaten will have come from aquaculture (GreenBiz).  The United States is home to the highest area of cost effective land for offshore aquaculture (Kapetsky, Aguilar-Manjarerez, & Jeness, 2013, p. 26) when compared on a global scale and should seek to use it to its advantage.

To ensure the development of American aquaculture movement is sustainable, streamlining of the regulatory process for establishing deepwater aquaculture operations must be prioritized. This makes it easier for businesses to establish these farms from the beginning. Offshore aquaculture operates 3-200 miles offshore (NOAA, 2016) while the federal Exclusive Economic Zone encompasses 3-200 miles offshore (Lapointe, 2013, p. 1), this means that offshore operations occur in federal waters, here is where things become cloudy as to who is responsible for regulating offshore aquaculture.

In order to allow the development of offshore aquaculture in the United States to create a sustainable source of food, the permitting process has to be streamlined to allow easy entrance into the market. There have been previous attempts to streamline the process, the National Offshore Aquaculture Acts of 2005 and 2007 which both failed to pass in congress (Lester et al., 2018). These acts granted the Secretary of Commerce the right to establish a permitting process for the development of offshore aquaculture in the U.S. waters (Congress, 2007). Due to this the current process for entering the offshore aquaculture is unclear and unstable, which scares investors away from what could possibly be an incredible investment. The federal government allocated NOAA permission to grant permits for up to 20 offshore aquaculture farms in the Gulf of Mexico (Gewin, 2018) in January of 2016. Though in 2018 the permits were ruled unlawful in court because they go beyond NOAA’s legal reach (Center for Food Safety, 2018).  When writing the permitting application, NOAA described the offshore aquaculture farms as fishing, which is their responsibility, though plaintiffs argued that aquaculture is more farming than fishing (Center for Food Safety, 2018). These court results promulgated that under current federal law, the development of offshore aquaculture in the United States is not permitted (IntraFish Media, 2018). This means a new regulatory process is imperative to allow potential offshore aquaculture farmers to develop their farms in the United States’ waters.

There are three government agencies involved in the offshore permitting process (Gewin 2017), including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) (NOAA, 2017), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (NOAA, 2017). NOAA has assumed the role of permitting any offshore aquaculture farm, currently in The Gulf of Mexico. In 2016 NOAA was alloted to permit 20 offshore aquaculture operations (NOAA, 2018), though in 2018 the permits were repealed before even being distributed (IntraFish Media, 2018). The USACE grants permits that protect the navigable waters of the U.S. (NOAA, 2017) while the EPA is totally different, they permit the discharge of pollution from an offshore aquaculture operation (NOAA, 2017). A potential offshore aquafarm might meet the USACE and EPA qualifications, though it is still not allowed to start its operations until NOAA receives approval to distribute permits.

There are also four government agencies involved with the authorization of offshore aquaculture operations. This includes the Bureau of Ocean Management (BOEM), the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) (BOEM, 2017).

One alternative for offshore aquaculture is to repurpose old fossil fuel rigs which provide the benefits of: the availability of large volumes of good-quality water, reduced user conflicts, increased employment, and decreased reliance on foreign imports (BOEM, 2007), but require cooperation from all four agencies. The BOEM authorizes the right to use for offshore operations that use an existing federal outer continental shelf facility (NOAA, 2017). The BSEE authorizes proposed activities that convert oil and gas facilities to a new purpose (NOAA, 2017). BSEE started an initiative in the mid 1980’s called the Rigs to Reef program to repurpose old fossil fuel rigs and can be used to promote offshore aquaculture (Rigs to Reef, n.d). While the U.S. Coast Guard authorizes that the proposed facilities will have the correct lights and signals that allow for safe maritime navigation (NOAA, 2017). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorizes that proposed actions are in compliance with all fish and wildlife laws including The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act and the Endangered Species Act (NOAA, 2017). The difficult part for the company is that every agency has different permit applications and periods. Companies could possibly receive approval from one agency, but get denied by another for a specification, extending the permitting process and making it complicated.

The proposed offshore aquaculture policy is a win-win in the political system, the Trump administration has already expressed in favor of expanding aquaculture in America (Gewin, 2017). Not only is offshore aquaculture a potential big money business for the United States and a chance to reduce our reliance on foreign imports, by moving the farms away from zones near the coast that harbor habitats that are more susceptible to damage from aquaculture like coral reefs (Gentry et al., 2016) and mangrove forests (Porchas & Cordova, 2012) the environmental impacts are far less than on-shore farms (Lester et al., 2018). With proper spatial planning, the offshore farms will have minimal environmental impact and a high yield of fish (Grewin, 2017) which appeals to both the conservative and liberal voters, in the sense that it is environmentally friendly and generates revenue.

With all this being said offshore aquaculture is not the only option for raising farm fed fish while reducing environmental impacts. Alternatives like recirculating aquaculture systems are either on-shore or on-land and physically separate the fish farm from the source water with a tank (Cermaq, 2012). The water is pulled from the source (typically the ocean) and circulated through the tank, when water exits the tank it passes through a filtration system that removes effluent wastes (Cermaq, 2012).  Though other problems arise from these systems like the battle for land use and the intense amount of energy needed to power these systems.

More than 40% of the world’s population lives no more than 62 miles away from the coast (Turcios & Papenbrock, 2014, p. 837) which must be planned to allow for the best use of space (Holland, 2010). In Croatia which has been praised for its successful spatial planning policy (Holland, 2010) the beautiful beaches have caused the rapid expansion of the tourism industry, taking away potential land for aquaculture farms, leading farmers to look offshore (Holland, 2010). While beaches are becoming crowded with umbrellas and aquaculture a massive area of the world is being ignored; the areas 3-200 miles off coasts. A study by the University of California-Santa Barbara found that if aquaculture were developed in only the most productive areas of the ocean, then the same amount of seafood that is currently produced annually, could be produced in an area the size of Lake Michigan (Seifert, 2017). Not only are these recirculating systems taking up useful land space, they are using an immense amount of energy to keep the operate the systems making them very costly.

Recirculating aquaculture systems have the highest energy use requirement per kilogram of fish when compared to that of other methods in the U.S. Pacific Northwest at 567 MJ/kg (Kim & Zhang, 2018, p. 2) compared to 117 MJ/kg of a conventional flow system (Kim & Zhang, 2018, p. 2). The main contributors to the energy consumption are the circulation, aeration, and filtration of the system’s water  (Badiola et al., 2018, p. 10). The aeration of the tanks typically amounts for 20% of the total energy consumption for the farm’s production cycle (Badiola et al., 2018, p. 60) whereas in an offshore aquaculture operation, no additional aeration of the water is needed because operating in deeper waters has shown to not even change the dissolved oxygen levels in the Gulf of Maine (Holmer, 2013, p. 142) due to the high volume of water naturally passing through the system. In addition to aerating the water, the water also has to be passed through multiple filter systems which takes hydraulic pressure, requiring more energy from the circulation pumps to operate during a normal backwashing cycle (which is how the filter is cleaned) a filter will use five times as much energy (Badiola et al., 2018, p. 60).

The waste that is gathered from these filters has to be either repurposed or disposed to prevent the introduction of these wastes into the water,  this again is very costly and energy intensive. Recirculating aquaculture systems reduce nutrient loading in the sediment by filtering out effluent waste, though the process is energy intensive and produces concentrated effluent waste which then must be dealt with. Because of this reason investors have only seen a 5% return on investment in recirculating aquaculture systems (Cermaq, 2012) as compared to 52% return on investment in net pen aquaculture (Cermaq, 2012). All of these factors make offshore aquaculture (a net pen system) a more cost effective and energy efficient manner of reducing the effects of nutrient loading from aquaculture.

Seafood consumption is steadily increasing not just in the United States, but globally. By 2030, ~66% of seafood will come from aquaculture production (Gewin, 2017). The United States only acquires a small fraction of its seafood from domestic production, and 50% of the seafood that is imported comes from some form of aquaculture (Knapp & Rubino, 2016, p. 214). It is clear that the reason Americans have not began establishing domestic aquaculture is not because they do not want to eat farmed fish, but because there are regulations in place that make it far too difficult to do it in the first place. The United States is ranked number 1 in potential for offshore aquaculture development (Kapetsky, Aguilar-Manjarrez, & Jeness, 2013, p. 26) and should immediately look to streamlining the permitting process for offshore aquaculture get at this opportunity.



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Fish farms won’t let native populations off the hook


Atlantic Salmon in Kuterra’s on-land fish farm

In late August 2017, a fish farm owned by Cooke Aquaculture allowed more than 300,000 non-native Atlantic salmon escape into the Puget Sound of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Washington state. Several days passed before a salvage team was hired. The main goal of the salvage team is to create a rapid-response center and encourage recreational fishers to catch as many salmon as possible. Earlier that year, Cooke submitted an application for “replacement and reorientation” of the facility to replace or repair the old-fashion steel cages the previous company had used prior to Cooke buying them out in 2016. The application stated that the system was “nearing the end of serviceable life,” and that repairs were needed in September, after the August salmon harvest (Kim E.T., 2017, para.5). A month before the collapse, Cooke had to complete an emergency repair to stabilize the crumbling facility. The emergency repair was to add extra anchors to the site because old ones had come loose and the site drifted away. Despite these concerns, state and federal agencies were not overly worried and figured the farm would remain stable until September and therefore did not ask them to replace the farm ahead of schedule (Kim E.T., 2017). After the escape incident in August, only about 146,000 of the 300,0000 escaped fish were recaptured (Kim E.T., 2017, para.1). Therefore, more than half of the escaped Atlantic salmon were released into the Pacific Ocean. Typically, Atlantic salmon are known to be more aggressive than Pacific salmon and some of the escaped salmon swam upstream towards spawning areas (Alaska Department of Fish and Game [ADFG], 2017; Kim E.T., 2017). Farmed Atlantic salmon can be identified through a mark left on their ear bone by Cooke aquaculture, and have been identified as far north as Fraser River in British Columbia (Mapes, 2017). Even after losing over 300,000 Atlantic salmon in August, Cooke aquaculture at Puget Sound was granted a permit in October to have one million more Atlantic salmon added to their farm. The only requirement for this permit was that the fish moving from the hatchery to the outside pens carry no disease. Their operation was granted the permit even though their prior escape is still under investigation (Mapes, 2017). Cooke’s main argument for the permit was that they had hatched salmon in their hatcheries and it was biologically time for them to move into the water. This is understandable due to rising demand of fish for consumption over the past few years.


In fact, the seafood industry has grown so much that industrial fishing can no longer support the demands of consumers resulting in the overfishing of oceans (Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO], 2011;World Wildlife Fund [WWF], 2017). Overfishing occurs when so many fish are being captured from the ocean that the species cannot reproductively keep up (WWF, 2017). In 2012, about 21% of fish stocks were considered overfished (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA] Fisheries, 2013, Table 1).

Just like farms on land that produce cows, chickens and pigs for consumption, fish farms are continuing to pop up in our local waters and are solving the problem of overfishing native populations. Aquaculture, the operation of raising fish commercially, supplies more than 50% of seafood produced for consumption, a number that will continue to rise (NOAA Fisheries, 2017-a, para.7). A report from NOAA fisheries illustrated that in 2015, the fish industry generated $208 billion dollars in sales and supported 1.6 million jobs across the United States (NOAA Fisheries, 2017-b, para. 6). In 2016, fish farms aided in bringing the previous 21% of overfished stocks down to 16% (NOAA Fisheries 2016, Table 2). By farming species that were once overfished, aquaculture facilities allow endangered populations to regenerate themselves (NOAA Fisheries, 2016). While the farmed fish industry continues to grow and reduces overfishing, it consequently poses significant risk to surrounding ecosystems when farmed fish escape and introduce parasites, compete for resources, and interbreed with native species. Between 1996 and 2012 close to 26 million fish were released from aquaculture facilities worldwide, that’s an average of about 1.5 million per year, and that’s just reported escapes (Center for Food Safety [CFS], 2012, Table 1). Fish escapes are common all around the world. For example, in Scotland, The Scottish Salmon Company reported that 300,000 Atlantic salmon escaped on May 21, 2017 (Scotland’s Aquaculture, 2017, pg. 2). The escape was said to be caused by the weather. Similarly, another Scottish company, Scottish Sea Farms ltd., reported that a predator caused 17,398 Atlantic salmon to escape from their farm on March 25, 2017 (Scotland’s Aquaculture, 2017, pg. 1). Furthermore, in 2010, 138,000 salmon escaped from pens in Grand Manan Canada from Admiral Fish Farm ltd. (Canadian Press, 2011, para. 2). President of the company, Glen Brown said that the breach was due to storms that prevented repair for more than four days (Canadian Press, 2011, para. 4). This escape could have been prevented if the regulations in place were upheld and state and national officials mandated the pens were fixed prior to the escape. The regulations in place currently are insufficient, and should be revised to prevent bigger and more detrimental escapes from occurring in the future. So, how can we continue to produce farmed fish while limiting the harmful effects of escape on the ecosystem? By improving legislative requirements on fish farms and increasing the number of on-land aquaculture facilities, the ecosystem will be better protected from escaped fish and the parasites, competition, and gene transmission they produce.

When the spawn of wild salmon hatch, they leave the spawning area and do not return until maturity is reached at around two years of age (Martyal, 2010). In the Broughton Archipelago of Western Canada, from 2001 to 2002, the population of expected spawn to return to the spawning area declined by 97% (Martyal, 2010, para. 2). When the population was examined, 90% of the juvenile wild salmon had contracted sea lice (Martyal, 2010, para. 2). 

Sea lice are parasites that feed on bodies of fish leaving open wounds that are susceptible to disease (Farmed and Dangerous, n.d.). Farmed fish are prone to getting sea lice due to being held in crowded cages, which is an ideal breeding area for lice. Juvenile salmon are most susceptible to getting sea lice since their scales have not fully developed, therefore it is easier for the lice to attach and eat away at their flesh (Farmed and Dangerous, n.d). In 2004, all the fish farms in the Broughton Archipelago area were found to have 29.5 million sea lice (Martyal, 2010, para. 6). When wild juveniles come in contact with infected farmed salmon on their two year journey before returning the the spawning area. This is because most fish farms are found in sheltered water areas along wild salmon migration routes (Farmed and Dangerous, n.d.). The juveniles must make it through 50 miles of fish farms before reaching open water (SeaWeb, 2007). Fishery ecologist from the University of Alberta, Martin Krkosek estimates that sea lice kills more than 80% of the salmon expected to return to their spawning sites (SeaWeb, 2007, para. 1). Additionally, Director of the Salmon Coast Field Station, Alexandra Morton addresses that the juvenile salmon from Broughton must be introduced to sea lice through farmed fish because the parents of the juveniles that carry the parasite are too far offshore (SeaWeb, 2007). Morton also confirms the idea that juveniles are too weak to survive sea lice infections (SeaWeb, 2007). Therefore, it is more than likely that the juvenile salmon are contracting sea lice from nearby escaped farmed fish.

One of the more prevalent issues that arises once large amounts of fish escape from aquaculture pens is competition between wild populations and farm-bred populations. Using salmon as a model organism, we can look further into the issues that arise when aquaculture-bred fish begin to interact with ecosystems originally inhabited by natural, wild fish stock.

First and foremost, dietary competition poses a huge threat of starving out endemic populations of salmon once their farm-bred counterparts emigrate to their habitats. Since the domesticated salmon and wild salmon share the same diet, the arrival of additional organisms to an ecosystem gives rise to the threat of surpassing the carrying capacity of said ecosystem and putting both farmed and wild fish at risk of starvation due to resource depletion (Naylor et al., 2005).

This risk is compounded even further by the nature of farm-bred salmon. Since aquaculture farms select for larger, meat-rich fish, farm-bred salmon have selection pressures in their favor (Bajak et al., 2016). Displaying more aggressive behavior, coupled with their larger biomass, farmed salmon are able to exhibit more fitness in acquiring food than their wild cousins, threatening the natural balance of a fragile ecosystem and causing complete ecological collapse (Naylor et al., 2005; Glover et al., 2016). With roughly 40% of salmon caught off the coast of the Faroe Islands being of farmed origin, the true implications of this new-found competition are only beginning to unfold (Naylor et al., 2005, pg. 427).

Not only do farmed salmon pose a risk of starving out wild salmonids, but they also display invasive behaviors in regards to nesting and foraging grounds, displacing native fish stock to more predated waters, potentially with very little resources (Toledo-Guedes et al., 2014).  A study by Van Zwol and associates found data showing that the David’s score (a metric of ecological dominance determined by behavioral analysis) of native salmon dropped when invasive species were introduced to their habitat. This directly resulted in reduced food consumption in the native stock by 40% (Van Zwol et al., 2012, fig. 1). The rise of feral populations of farmed salmonids and the subsequent competition between them and wild stock is a growing concern among ocean ecologists, and is directly tied to decreases in wild salmon population by as much as 50% in recent years (Naylor et al., 2005; Castle, 2017, para. 5).

Similarly, farmed fish can introduce new genes to a native population. When escaped fish mate with their native cousins, populations overtime start to show genetic similarities. Nearly half of the wild salmon population in Norway share about 40% of the gene pool of nearby farmed salmon , showing that the blurring of lines between these two distinct populations is already beginning to unfold (Bajak et al., 2016, para. 3). This may seem harmless, but these traits that are being passed from farmed to wild salmon are not desirable in an open ocean setting. Typically, farmed salmon have a lower fitness and survival rate than wild salmon because they are so used to having their survival needs provided for them by farmers. In this area of weak natural selection, and breeding efforts focused solely on production purposes, domesticated salmon with genetically inherited aggressive behavior put them at increased risk of predation. The same traits that allow farm bred salmon to dietarily out compete wild stock puts them in more danger of being killed by predators (Roberge et al., 2008). When traits are passed on to the hybrid population, they are not as successful as their wild parent and have a greater potential of death. According to the Norwegian Institute of Nature Research and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, by interbreeding native and farmed fish species over two generations there is a significant decline in success, fitness and overall population size (Bajak et al., 2016). A study conducted by Roberge and colleagues, confirms these findings . Roberge compared the level of gene transcription within the genomes of wild and second generation hybrids of wild and farmed salmon. It was found that over 6% of genes had significantly different transcription levels than the first generation cross between the native and farmed population (Roberge et al., 2008, pg. 314). If detrimental genes are propelled into expression by this shock to the genetic system of wild salmon, or if normally functioning genes are overexpressed, the overall fitness of the wild population could exponentially decline. Dr. Christian Roberge, an expert researcher in the field of the effects of salmon hybridization at Laval University claims that this is a serious cause for concern in coming years, as it can lead to population collapse when combined with the other issues highlighted in this paper (Roberge et al., 2008).

Further compounding the damaging effects of interbreeding, the triploidy of hybrid salmon has the potential to majorly contribute to population collapse. Much like mules, horse-donkey hybrids, hybrid salmon possess three sets of chromosomes in comparison to a regular organism’s two, rendering them incapable of reproduction (Fjelldall et al., 2014). Therefore, if a large amount of triploid hybrid salmon are present in a population, mass die offs and subsequent population decreases are inevitable, as the population has no means of sustaining itself if it cannot reproduce at a rate faster than it dies off.

By gene transmission between wild and farmed populations, and the proliferation of triploidy, the overall survival rate for fish in wild ocean environments are declining and causing a deleterious effect on the ecosystem. A successful ecosystem needs high survival rates for it organisms by ensuring specific health needs are met. As Dr. Roberge highlighted in his analysis of the genetic transcription differences between native and farmed salmon, these issues will only compound with time, and can quickly get out of control if we do not do anything to rectify them.

Aquaculture is a complicated system that falls under the jurisdiction of the Environmental Protection Agency along with several other state and federal agencies in the United States (Centers for Epidemiology & Animal Health, 1995). The EPA sets effluent limitation guidelines (ELGs), which restrict the allowable amount of pollution that large Concentrated Animal Production Facilities (CAAP) can produce (Harvard Law School et al., 2012). By the Clean Water Act (CWA) definition, any CAAP that has a “discernible, confined and discrete conveyance… from which pollutants are or may be discharged” is termed a point source polluter (Harvard Law School et al., 2012). The CWA is regulated under the EPA (Harvard Law School et al., 2012).Through the EPA aquaculture facilities are regulated as point source polluters if they produce more than 20,000 (cold water facilities) or 100,000 (warm water facilities) pounds of fish per year and use 5,000 pounds or more of feed per month for at least 30 days per year (Harvard Law School et al., 2012). However, ELGs do not apply to CAAPs that do not fall below these requirements and are instead governed by the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) (Harvard Law School et al., 2012). Under the NPDES these facilities are required to obtain a permit with specific effluent limitations based off the judgement of the individual writing the permit (Harvard Law School et al., 2012). Therefore, there are no strict guidelines, just the permit writer’s assessment. ELGs can have both numeric and narrative limitations but do not require one or the other (Harvard Law School et al., 2012). While for larger CAAPs, ELGs help regulate the limitation of food input necessary for production, the proper storage of drugs and pesticides, and routine inspections, they do not explicitly address fish escape as a problem (Harvard Law School et al., 2012).

While there are massive ecological consequences to fish escape, the most direct and immediate effect felt by people is the economic damage caused by lost fish. Across six European nations (United Kingdom, Norway, Malta, Ireland, Spain and Greece) over a three year period, 8,922,863 fish escaped in 242 incidents, with over five million of those occurring during two catastrophic events. This accounts for a €47.5 million loss per year, or $56,391,050 (Jackson et al., 2015 , pg. 22). This cost alone is incentive for increased regulations, as solving the fish escape problem would mean cheaper fish for consumers and more profits for the farmers.

Many detractors of legislation would claim that it’s impossible to impose legislation into the mix of a low-profitability production environment such as fisheries. Increasing profitability and employment in the industry all while increasing protection to the environment can seem unattainable, but these are exactly the regulatory goals Norway has adopted in regards to its massive fisheries industry. Despite being the 118th largest country by population, Norway is the world’s 10th largest producer of fish (Årland, & Bjørndal, 2002, pg. 309). By instituting annual quotas for total allowable catches for various species, as well as freezing and sometimes even cutting allowable production in at-risk areas for pathogen transmission, Norway has effectively been able to manage stock populations and detriment to the environment effectively (Castle, 2017). Between 2006 and 2010, fish escapes in Norway decreased precipitously from 290,000 to just 70,000, an over 400% decrease (CFS, 2012, Table 1). This is concrete evidence of the feasibility and efficacy of regulations in the aquaculture industry, and legislators would be wise to follow Norway’s highly successful path.

Cooke aquaculture at Puget Sound is currently under investigation because the Wild Fish Conservancy (WFC) has filed a citizen suit against them under the CWA (Schuitemaker, 2017). The CWA monitors the water quality impacts of aquaculture and any pollutants that are released into the water without a permit (Harvard Law School et al., 2012). The WFC maintains that Cooke should be held accountable because living organisms, like fish that are released into the water, are considered pollutants (Harvard Law School et al., 2012). If the set ELGs for large fish farms do not directly include protection against fish escape and continue to group escaped fish as a pollutant, why would individual perimeters for smaller farms consider it?

Regulations by the EPA should be expanded to include all size farms, and should acknowledge escaped fish separately from other pollutants. Additionally, new and existing regulations should be enforced and recorded more consistently to ensure that new aquaculture facilities are not constantly reinventing the wheel, and can obtain knowledge on running an environmentally and economically conscious facilities (Harvard Law School et al., 2012). If facilities are forced to limit the concentration of fish within a pen, less fish will escape into the open water, should an escape occur. If strict enough regulations, punishments and fines are implemented, few farms could skirt the responsibilities involved with running an ecologically sustainable aquaculture facility and maintain economic feasibility (Thorvaldsen et al., 2015).

Facilities should regularly be inspected by their operating company and the EPA to ensure fish pens are secure and can endure regular weather, tide, and ocean variabilities in the area (Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 2017). Increased inspections would limit the amount of equipment becoming dilapidated to prevent future escapes, like the one that occurred at Cooke aquaculture.

Even if no reprimanding action is taken or required of facilities, all incidents of escape should be recorded and investigated to prevent future incidents from occurring and to be used as guidelines for other facilities so they can avoid making the same errors (Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 2017; Harvard Law School et al., 2012; Scotland, 2017). A list of all escape incidences should be created and updated yearly to ensure an accurate number of escapees is gathered (Scotland, 2017; Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 2017).

While instituting new legislation is a viable solution to preventing environmental issues in regards to fish farms, the costs associated with implementing and enforcing regular inspections, water quality tests, and regulating farm sizes and outputs are considerable and discourage new players from entering the aquaculture industry (McCarthy and River, 2002). Stringent enforcement of these regulations is also absolutely necessary, as many companies simply skirt regulations when they lack oversight due to operational complications, lack of operator education, tight schedules and efficiency initiatives (Thorvaldsen et al., 2015).

In addition to increasing regulation, creating more on-land fish farm facilities will eliminate escape occurrences, and significantly decrease the environmental impacts fish farms have on open water ecosystems (O’Neill, 2017). When possible, moving fish farms to facilities on land could be the solution to preventing fish escape and the myriad of environmental issues mentioned previously that facilities produce in open water environments (Aukner, 2017). This solution readily applies to the majority of fish species, as moving to on-land facilities is a viable and more sustainable option, but for the majority of shellfish, like clams, oysters, and scallops farming in open water can be more beneficial to the environment than destructive by because these species can remove biotoxins, chemical contaminants, and pathogenic microorganisms during their natural process of filtering water for food and other resources (Connecticut Department of Agriculture, 2017). Kuterra, a land based aquaculture facility has had great success in starting an on-land fish farm, and releases documents containing information on the costs associated with on-land fish farming, guides to operating on-land facilities, and the benefits of farming on-land which are valuable to other companies interested in opening facilities (Kuterra, 2014). With the support of multiple national and international companies, their hope and mission is that more farms will open or move on shore in the future and by providing resources future companies can avoid costly trial and error processes (Kuterra, 2014). Several farmed species are marine fish, and therefore require access to saltwater, so on- land facilities are limited by location, needing to stay within several kilometers from a saltwater source in order to operate (Kuterra, 2014).

In order to create a sustainable and economically productive aquaculture industry going  forward, regulations must be changed to accommodate greater operational aspects of fish farms. This industry could and should be reshaped to prevent further degradation of the environment without sacrificing economic capacity. Additionally, innovations, such as on-land fish farms, must continue to be proposed and investigated for feasibility and efficacy. The future of mankind’s fisheries is at stake, and pivotal action must be taken to ensure the safety of our seafood supplies. We strongly advise following the advice of the wealth of experts cited in this paper, and implement strict regulations in the vein of Norway’s that regulate density of fish in net pens, total annual production limits and scalebacks, and fines for noncompliance.


Eleah Caseau, Environmental Science

Jenna Costa, Animal Science, Biotechnology Research

Trevor Klock, Plant and Soil Science



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How Farming Oysters Impacts the Ocean


Oyster Farmer Chris Whitehead adjusting oyster cages

The district was blindsided by the lawsuit. The National Audubon Society, which is a non-profit organization that aims to fight for the conservation of the environment (“Audubon”, 2016) along with the California Waterfowl Association, sued the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District (Kraft 2017). Humboldt Bay is an important stop for migratory birds to eat and rest on the Pacific Flyway, the path of migration for many birds (Simms, 2017).The Audubon society was outraged by the unjust approval for the expansion of a commercial oyster farm (owned by Coast Seafoods and Co) into the Humboldt Bay Harbor that would hurt Canada geese, Western sandpipers, and other migratory birds (Kraft, 2017). The Audubon society claimed that a faulty environmental report was used by the Conservation District to approve the expansion, and that 200 species of birds, 300 species of invertebrates, and over 100 plant species, including eelgrass, would be affected by this expansion (Kraft, 2017). Why does a decline of a 100 small plant species, like eelgrass, matter? Eelgrass supports a multitude of marine organisms and communities, including but not limited to: crabs, sea turtles, young herring, and other microorganisms through acting as food and shelter. With the expansion of aquaculture as a business, about half of the bay would incorporate wire-like structures (Kraft, 2017). Certain methods to harvest oysters trample eelgrass in the process, which for a species already in extensive decline on the west coast, could have detrimental impacts on the ecosystem as a whole (Kraft, 2017). The spokesperson for the Audubon society, Mike Lynes, points to the fact that with a decline of eelgrass comes a decline of certain birds like the black brant and a decline in certain fish as well (Kraft, 2017). Any decline in a resident species in a habitat will affect the food chain and natural flow of the ecosystem. As if not already expected, the general manager of Coast Seafoods denied that the environmental report was faulty and insisted that the proper measures were taken to evaluate the environmental impact the expansion would have on the Humboldt Bay Harbor (Kraft, 2017). Due to the risk of negative alterations to the seagrass life cycle by oyster aquaculture, the size and number of oyster aquaculture farms must be limited in location and method of farming. Continue Reading

The Impact of Aquaculture on the Environment

Open ocean aquaculture


The rapidly growing human population is creating an increase in the demand for fish worldwide (Tidwell & Allan, 2001). Unfortunately, the amount of fish captured in fisheries is no longer meeting this demand because the annual production of captured fish has not changed significantly since 2011 (Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO], 2016, p. 4). Overall, 93.4 million tonnes of fish were captured in 2014 but 146 million tonnes of fish were consumed (FAO, 2016, p. 4). Ultimately, overfishing is the main cause of this widening gap between fish consumption and the amount of fish being captured. In 2014, capture fisheries depleted 30 million tons of fish from the most exploited fish species, including Atlantic salmon and trout (FAO, n,d, p. 3). However, aquaculture systems provide a unique solution to alleviate this exploitation caused by overfishing because they are designed to breed and harvest fish rather than capture wild species (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA], n.d. a). Aquaculture is becoming a more popular fish production method as it has an annual increase of 6 percent and is projected to produce over half of the fish consumed by 2025 (FAO, 2016, pp. 22, 172). In contrast, capture fisheries’ production rates are steadily declining and are predicted to collapse by 2048 (National Geographic, 2016, para. 8). In addition to providing relief for exploited fish populations, the success of aquaculture systems is attributed to the ability to selectively breed and rear fish that have a higher growth rate (Hindar, Fleming, McGinnity & Diserud, 2006). This increased growth rate can increase fish production and ultimately reduce fish price by almost 2 percent by the year 2030 (World Bank, 2013. p. xviii). Valderrama, Hishamunda & Zhou (2010) also demonstrate that the global aquaculture industry provides 16 million jobs worldwide (p. 24). Overall, increasing aquaculture production, can prevent large amounts of malnutrition in the human population by providing an inexpensive protein source (FAO, 2016). Continue Reading