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Fish Farming In Gulf Poses Questions And Opportunities

Tegan Wendland
Harlon Pearce stands inside his refrigerated warehouse in Kenner. He says offshore aquaculture will provide a more steady supply for his business, Harlon's LA Fish.

Most of the fish we eat in the U.S. comes from other countries. Fishermen in Louisiana have long sought to displace some of those imports but the industry has faced challenges like hurricanes and the 2010 BP oil spill.

Now, a new source of fish in the gulf offers promise -- but also raises questions.

For the first time, the Gulf of Mexico is open for fish farming.

Companies can apply for permits through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency. Then they can install floating fish cages -- like those already in place in state waters off the coasts of Maine, Washington and Hawaii.

Harlon Pearce owns Harlon’s LA Fish, which sells local fish to restaurants and grocery stores across the south. On a recent afternoon his refrigerated warehouse in Kenner was full of them. He pointed to yellowfin tuna, snapper, black drum and sheep’s head. It doesn’t always look this way.

Pearce, who is on the board of the Gulf Seafood Institute, says he freezes a lot of his fish in order to meet continuous demand, but ultimately always runs out. He wants to sell nationwide and contract with big chains, like Red Lobster, but he says, “We never have enough fish to supply the markets. Never.”

That’s true for a couple of reasons – the seafood industry in the Gulf still hasn’t bounced back from the 2010 BP oil spill, but it’s always fluctuated due to hurricanes and pollution.

Sal Sunseri is chairman of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board and owns P&J Oysters in the French Quarter. He says coastal land loss and planned diversions are also decreasing the habitat for local fish and oyster beds.

“The natural abundance of what we’ve had since the beginning has been just pronounced each and every day and we’re blessed to have that natural growth, but for the future we’re going to have to look at some other ideas," Sunseri says. "Aquafarming offshore in federal waters? That’s a solution.”

The rest of the world is already doing it. According to NOAA, 90 percent of fish Americans eat is imported, and about half of that is grown and harvested, not caught wild.

NOAA will issue permits to companies that want to set up shop in federal waters, which is three miles offshore in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and nine miles off the coasts of Texas and Florida. Companies can use giant floating pens and can only raise fish that are native to the area, like red drum and cobia. They’ll be able to lease these areas for 10 years.

Some people think that’s not such a great idea. Marianne Cufone is an adjunct professor at the environmental law clinic at Loyola University. She says fish farming is bad for the environment.

“Especially escapes of fish, there have been millions of fish that have escaped all over world and are causing problems – not just genetic problems but things like spreading diseases between captive fish and wild fish,” Cufone says.

Fish food and waste could also fall out of the pens and impact the ecosystem on the ocean floor. NOAA says it took all of this into account by considering thousands of public comments and enforcing environmental safeguards, like constantly monitoring the cages.

Cufone says it’s not enough. She says this won’t be good for fishermen because it simply takes the same problem of competition from foreign farmed fish and brings it to their front door.

“These systems will take up real space in the ocean and displace fishermen, in fact there are going to be buffer zones around these facilities where fishermen can’t go,” she says.

Rusty Gaude, fisheries expert with Louisiana Sea Grant, which is an extension of LSU, says the farms will create jobs for Gulf fishermen who might work offshore feeding the fish or bringing them back and forth to shore.

“Their fathers didn’t do it. Their grandfathers didn’t do it, but they will definitely have an opportunity to participate in this as full blown watermen,” says Gaude. “In many ways it’s analogous to what’s happening in the oil industry. There were a lot of people who didn’t understand the oil industry, either.”

But most local fishermen wouldn’t be able to afford starting one of these farms, and there are only 20 permits available. The first permits for fish cages off Louisiana’s coast are about two years away. But Gaude expects, eventually, the Gulf will be dotted with them.

This story has been revised to reflect the following correction: NOAA is issuing 20 permits, not leases. 

Support for WWNO's Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Coypu Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

Tegan has reported on the coast for WWNO since 2015. In this role she has covered a wide range of issues and subjects related to coastal land loss, coastal restoration, and the culture and economy of Louisiana’s coastal zone, with a focus on solutions and the human dimensions of climate change. Her reporting has been aired nationally on Planet Money, Reveal, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, BBC, CBC and other outlets. She’s a recipient of the Pulitzer Connected Coastlines grant, CUNY Resilience Fellowship, Metcalf Fellowship, and countless national and regional awards.

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