Maryland Sea Grant

A Boost For Aquaculture: Tools To Identify Suitable Sites for Farming Seafood

For those looking to launch an ocean-based aquaculture project, finding both available and suitable space to safely farm seafood can be a daunting challenge, especially in densely populated locations like Southern California
Clare Leschin-Hoar

Shrimp, salmon, tilapia, shellfish — much of the 20.5 pounds of seafood Americans consume each year is farmed rather than caught and is a trend echoed globally. Aquaculture now produces more than half of the world’s seafood, but experts warn too little of that farming is being done here at home.

“We’ve missed the aquaculture revolution,” says Luke Gardner, aquaculture extension specialist with California Sea Grant. “The U.S. is the second largest consumer of seafood in the world, and we’re also the biggest importer of seafood globally, creating a $17 billion trade deficit.”

Unfortunately, closing the gap isn’t as simple as roping off some ocean space to farm fish. Stand at the end of one of San Diego’s ocean-facing piers and it could seem like there are vast amounts of space available to grow seafood, but the ocean is a far busier place than it appears. Commercial fishermen, recreational boaters, cargo vessels, telecom activity, and the military already utilize much of the southern California coastal and ocean space.

For those looking to launch an ocean-based aquaculture project, finding both available and suitable space to safely farm seafood can be a daunting challenge, especially in densely populated locations like Southern California — one of only two U.S. regions NOAA has identified as an offshore Aquaculture Opportunity Area (AO).

To find a solution, researchers from the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) have been developing a range of planning tools to help identify suitable offshore sites and manage them. Through a project funded by the National Sea Grant Office (NSGO), Maryland Sea Grant (MDSG) is working with NCCOS to help educate and connect Sea Grant aquaculture professionals, the aquaculture industry and other interested parties with respect to these planning tools. The project’s main purpose is to host a series of six regional workshops — including one recent meeting in San Diego — to highlight and receive feedback for the refinement of NCCOS’ current and future tools.

The project’s community-led approach is designed to connect and build capacity among regional users through conversations centered around aquaculture tools to improve sustainable aquaculture development. 

“This project will help Sea Grant aquaculture professionals, coastal managers and industry learn about these cutting edge tools to aid in the growth of sustainable U.S. aquaculture,” says Chuck Weirich, an aquaculture manager with the national Sea Grant office. 

Annie Schatz, aquaculture projects coordinator with Maryland Sea Grant says Interpreting data can be the most challenging part of spatial planning.

“We want to put context to the data and support partners, whether it’s environmental protection; the rights of individuals; protected species risks; habitat, or how to enhance ecosystems or threatened species through aquaculture,” says Schatz.

Whether it’s an ambitious yellowtail farm or a long-line offshore mussel operation, the NCCOS’ aquaculture planning tools can help potential growers narrow down prospective sites to place a farm before they begin the permitting process. That can help ease the burden placed on farms before they’re able to start making a profit, and can help boost investor confidence. Tools like the National AquaMapper and Ocean Reports can also aid coastal managers identify suitable areas for aquaculture development in U.S. federal waters, reducing planning costs while encouraging investment opportunities that can boost domestic seafood production and increase domestic food security.

A potential grower can use the tool to identify ocean space that meets their farm  parameters including depth requirements, distance from shore, hard or sandy bottoms, and more. The tools can also narrow down potentially suitable ocean spaces by evaluating how these busy waters are already utilized. 

“Spatial modeling supports the growth of the Blue Economy by guiding the development of industries such as aquaculture and offshore wind energy. It helps identify areas where these activities can thrive while preserving the health of marine ecosystems and the human communities that depend on the vital shared space,” says Christopher Schillaci, Research Marine Ecologist with NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

“The policy of NOAA is to encourage and foster sustainable aquaculture development that is in harmony with healthy, productive and resilient marine ecosystems,” he says. “We take it farther—is it economically, socially and environmentally sustainable? We need to feed people in this country and that needs to be part of the discussion as well.”