Santa Barbara commercial fisherman heads out to catch local fish. Courtesy of Richard M. Newnham

Sharing Ocean Space to Boost Seafood Production

California Sea Grant’s New Website Offers Solutions For Shrinking America’s Seafood Deficit
Clare Leschin-Hoar

From Crescent City to San Diego, California is home to a string of vibrant and diverse fishing communities. Well managed fisheries for albacore, black cod, lobster, crab, white sea bass, squid, spot prawn, spiny lobster and more provide nutritious, sustainably produced seafood many Americans value and rely on.

But the state’s fishermen aren’t working on the water in isolation. They’re sharing that blue space with a wide variety of other activities including recreation and tourism, military operations, communications, oil and gas production and more. Add in an emerging interest in expanding ocean aquaculture opportunities and those vast open waters can suddenly feel crowded.

Despite its well-managed wild fisheries, America has a seafood deficit problem. It’s both an economic challenge and a food security concern. The US has jurisdiction over more ocean space than any nation in the world — a whopping 4.3 million square miles of it — yet nearly 80 percent of the 19 pounds of seafood consumed per person each year is imported into the U.S. 

Many are looking toward ocean farming as a way to boost domestic production of seafood, but a dizzying maze of federal, state and local regulatory requirements must be navigated before mariculture projects can take off. The challenges are real, making it no surprise that America ranks 18th globally for aquaculture production, well behind countries like China, Indonesia and India.  

To help support efforts to coordinate ocean space use so fishing and mariculture can co-exist, California Sea Grant is unveiling the first of a series of StoryMap webpages identifying the primary obstacles in the mariculture development process and offering solutions to overcome them.

“At its core, the new website Sharing Ocean Space to Enhance Seafood Production is meant to be a tool to understand how we can better share ocean space to produce more domestic seafood while minimizing conflict among ocean users,” says Carolynn Culver, a California Sea Grant Extension Specialist.

The new website is based on research led by Carrie Pomeroy, a Research Social Scientist at the Institute of Marine Sciences at UC Santa Cruz, and Culver. The research team conducted interviews with fishermen, mariculturists, and local, state and federal agency staff, reviewed relevant documents, observed public meetings, and monitored fisheries and mariculture news and events to collect additional data. 

“We found that many of the agencies that have a say in the processes related to the state’s fisheries and mariculture have little or no capacity to collect and analyze needed information or interact directly with relevant ocean users,” says Pomeroy. “Our hope is this new website will help address many of those information challenges and gaps.”

The first step toward minimizing conflict is for ocean users to better understand each other. For example, there’s a misperception that fishing can be done anywhere.

“Fishing is often discussed as a single entity, but really, there’s a great diversity of species fished and gear types used each with its own space use needs,” says Culver. “But fishing relies on certain conditions — where targeted species are found, rules governing the type of fishing gear that’s allowed, seasonal fishing restrictions, etc.”  

Culver and Pomeroy point to some synergies that already exist between fishing and mariculture groups. Both depend on shared fuel docks, cold storage facilities and in some cases, seafood handlers and processors. Other areas of commonality can be murkier. For example, hook-and-line fishing for nearshore rockfish and a mussel longline culture operation may be compatible when done near one another, but site a mussel farm where hook-and-line fishing occurs and the potential for conflict escalates. 

It’s not uncommon for proposed ocean aquaculture projects to experience setbacks due to incomplete or inaccurate data. Some projects have even been derailed. This problem stems in large part from the reliance on the applicant to gather information and then decide what is provided to agencies. The website highlights ways to help address these issues. 

For example, agencies can look to processes already in use to develop new fisheries — starting off small, gathering and analyzing information in real time, and evaluating whether the new activity is viable from ecological, economic and social perspectives.

“Requiring ‘proof of concept’, as is done with experimental fisheries, is not only a sound business approach, but it provides time to minimize impacts by working them out while still on a small scale,” says Culver.

Other ideas include repurposing ocean spaces previously used for other activities.

“In some areas, there may be an opportunity to repurpose ocean spaces that have been used for other activities that are winding down — think oil and gas lease sites,” says Culver. “We already know shellfish grows well out there, is safe to eat, and wouldn’t interfere with fishing or other activities since the space has been off-limits to those uses for quite some time.”

Additional segments of the series will be launched later this year, with more interactive maps designed by website co-author Michael Robinson, a Data Science & GIS Specialist. One segment will focus on improving mapping efforts to help identify potential locations to site ocean farms for food production and other expanded or new uses, including wind energy. Another will take an in-depth look at how fisheries and mariculture are governed and the role of agencies and others in California’s aquaculture development process.

“We hope this new website will be useful to local, state and federal agencies, mariculture applicants, fishery participants and other ocean users and communities,” says Pomeroy, inspiring enhanced efforts to address key issues in ocean aquaculture while working to expand seafood production in California and beyond.” 

About California Sea Grant

NOAA’s California Sea Grant College Program funds marine research, education and outreach throughout California. Headquartered at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, California Sea Grant is one of 34 Sea Grant programs in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Department of Commerce.