I came away from the recently concluded Aquaculture America conference feeling discouraged about the prospects for further growth of US aquaculture. It’s not any single event or policy has led me to that view but a conclusion drawn from hearing the same complaints and concerns year after year without any change on the ground.
The stagnation of US aquaculture is obvious at many levels. The largest aquaculture sector in the country, catfish farming, peaked in 2002 and has not yet come close to recovering 15 years later. As a result, the country is no longer a top-10 global producer. Trout production has barely budged in decades. Salmon farming in net pens in Maine and Washington, never fully developed, peaked around 2000. Shellfish production, one of the brighter lights of US aquaculture, grows modestly but faces ongoing challenges from competing users of coastal areas, climate change, and food safety. University research programs in aquaculture have been scaled back and, in some cases, done away with altogether.
So, what are the reasons for this stagnation? One big reason is that domestically produced “whitefish” are not able to compete with imports of tilapia and pangasius and haven’t for about two decades. The regulatory environment in the US is more restrictive than enabling. There is no doubt that the multilayered rules of the game are difficult and frustrating for existing and potential producers. Permits for aquaculture take too long.
The media, ever eager to stoke controversy, have embraced negative narratives about aquaculture, and these have sown confusion in the minds of consumers and increased their hesitancy to buy fish. Some of these narratives originated from groups claiming to speak on behalf of the public interest but in reality they are speaking on behalf of the donors to foundations that support those groups. Skewed perspectives about aquaculture are now common among Americans.
I would argue that another important factor has contributed to the stagnation of US aquaculture: we are not a fish-eating people. Other than along the US coastlines, there is no culture of eating seafood. The US does not have a culinary tradition that embraces seafood in the same way as it does in most Asian and Mediterranean countries. The annual per capita consumption of fish in the US has increased only modestly from about 10 pounds in 1960 to about 15-16 pounds today (compared to a global average of more than 40 pounds), a level essentially unchanged since 1990. Over the same period, the annual per capita consumption of poultry has increased from 34 pounds to more than 100 pounds. Seafood has yet to be competitive with poultry, beef and pork in the American diet. Partly this is a matter of price; seafood tends to be a higher-cost protein than terrestrial livestock. But partly this is a characteristic of American consumers, who have limited experience eating seafood and demand convenience. It’s difficult to imagine an America where eating seafood is an everyday thing, rather than something special when eating out.
Despite the relatively modest per capita consumption, the US is a populous and relatively wealthy country and represents one of the world’s biggest seafood market. There is talk of trying to address the “seafood deficit” in the country, but I can’t help but feel pessimistic about prospects of solving this problem. Of course, this deficit is often used to provide justification for developing US aquaculture to meet that market demand. However, there are several reasons why this has become such a difficult challenge. First, every successful aquaculture producing country is pressing its own natural advantages, whether it’s a year-round growing season, natural resource endowments, infrastructure, geographic position, low labor costs, or a relatively permissive regulatory environment.
Americans consume about 4 pounds of shrimp per capita per year. Why can’t we grow those shrimp in the US? Beyond the regulatory hurdles alluded to previously, there are only a few places in the country (south Florida, south Texas, Hawaii) with a favorable climate for year-round production in ponds. Farms have been built in these places, but no true industry has developed. The same can be said for indoor shrimp culture.
For salmon, the US has essentially ceded the market to Canada, Norway and Chile. Again, other than Alaska (a story unto itself), the US has limited potential only along the far northern coasts. Even the warmwater areas of the US impose distinct seasonality on production of tilapia and catfish. Although the main production area in China is also characterized by seasonal production, other farms operate continuously using big net pens in tropical reservoirs. Where are the resources like this in the US and how could US producers compete given their disadvantaged position relative to low-cost producers? Will US producers be left to cater primarily to niche markets only?
Culture also plays a role in public attitudes toward aquaculture. In countries with a traditional marine focus (and a tradition of eating fish), public attitudes toward aquaculture are favorable. Likewise, in developing countries with food security concerns and a high dependency on fish protein, objections to aquaculture are few. In the US, the public doesn’t quite know what to think because messages have been mixed and the diversity of aquaculture gets lost when broad allegations about the problems of aquaculture are made.
I don’t want to leave the impression that there is no future for US aquaculture, only to lament that it has not come close to realizing its potential and that global growth has not been mirrored domestically. The US is likely to be better known in the future as a producer of aquaculture information and technology than as a producer of fish. The plenary session of Aquaculture America was focused on the future, especially the role of the Millennial generation. Despite my rather dark view of the present, the willingness of Millennials to take on the challenges of continuing to develop US aquaculture inspires some optimism.