Written by Casey Willson, current communications intern with Don’t Cage Our Oceans and future DCO2 part-time communications coordinator and researcher. Graphics provided by DCO2.
Corporate control of our food system is a looming threat, and one of its most concerning manifestations is the relentless push for offshore fish farming, also known as open-ocean aquaculture. While this industry provides false promises of increased seafood production, it is imperative to critically examine the consequences of corporate influence on our oceans and local fishing communities. Large agribusinesses, trade groups, and transnational corporations are actively shaping the future of offshore fish farming, jeopardizing the environment and the livelihoods of coastal communities. They are moving the land-based industrial agriculture model offshore – out of sight and out of mind.
The Power Players: Advancing Profit over Sustainability
At the forefront of promoting offshore fish farming is the Stronger America Through Seafood industry bloc, consisting of corporate giants, including Merck Animal Health, Cargill, and Sysco – familiar names in the agribusiness sector. Their primary objective is to advance industrial-scale aquaculture through lobbying and legislation to maximize profits. Farming communities have seen the same maneuvers, where global financial interests trump protecting our environment and communities. Even if they employ blue-washing tactics, questions remain about the true sustainability and ethical implications of their actions.
The Coalition for Sustainable Aquaculture sounds benign, but it is another industry trade group comprised of self-proclaimed environmentalists, fish farming companies, big tech, and chefs. Their mission is to build a coalition in support of offshore aquaculture in the United States. The members include Environmental Defense Fund, Hubbs SeaWorld, Blue Ocean Mariculture, and Tidal – a subsidiary of Alphabet focused on integrating artificial intelligence into our food system.
The Industrial Agriculture Model at Sea
Major agribusinesses like Cargill, Bayer, and Merck Animal Health are transferring the industrial agriculture model from land to sea through floating concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). This exploitation of the oceans disregards the delicate balance of marine ecosystems and prioritizes profits over responsible practices. With these corporate giants supplying fish feed and veterinary products, their influence on the regulatory landscape raises further concerns about accountability and transparency in the offshore fish farming industry.
The Environmental and Social Toll
The environmental impact of offshore fish farming cannot be ignored. Companies have faced legal challenges due to their detrimental impacts on marine ecosystems. For instance, in 2017 there was a massive salmon escapement at a Cooke Aquaculture farm in which over 55,000 non-native Atlantic Salmon escaped into the Pacific Ocean. Cooke Aquaculture initially lied about the scale of the accident, claiming that only 4,000 salmon had escaped. What’s more, the Lummi People, a Native American tribe that resides on an island near the site of the escapement, ended up cleaning up Cooke’s mess. This incident highlights the ecological risks associated with expanding offshore fish farming. Offshore fish farming can lead to pollution, disease outbreaks, and harm to wild fish populations, posing significant threats to the fragile balance of marine environments and the communities that depend on them.
Foreign entities, including Norwegian companies like American Aquafarms and Nordic Aquafarms, are also seeking a foothold in the United States for their aquaculture ventures. The involvement of these interests raises concerns about the potential destruction of local ecosystems and the exploitation of American waters for foreign gain – essentially, we will take on the destruction while far away corporations reap all the financial benefits. For example, Norway has slapped a 25% tax on the Norwegian salmon companies that operate in Norwegian waters. To escape that cost, these corporations are eying to exploit American waters. We cannot allow offshore fish farming to become a playground for distant corporations, endangering the future of our native fisheries.
Offshore fish farms discharge untreated fish waste, antibiotics, and other chemicals directly into surrounding waters. Farmed fish can spread diseases and parasites to other marine life, and escapees threaten wild fish populations. Farming predatory fish, like salmon, can consume more wild fish, like mackerel, herring, anchovies, than they produce in the form of farmed seafood, resulting in a net loss of protein, and, those little fish are needed to keep the balance of the entire marine ecosystem.
In 2022, an FAO study found that scooping up forage fish for farmed fish will lead to significant increases in food insecurity in Sub-Saharan Africa. In trying to find solutions to replace forage fish, the aquaculture industry is creating fish feeds that include monoculture and genetically engineered corn, soy, and canola. It’s not surprising that Cargill, one of the world’s largest traders of these crops, is one of the biggest drivers of offshore fish farming.
What’s more, the offshore aquaculture industry has the backing of the federal government. In 2020, the Trump administration introduced Executive Order 13921, which directs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to promote offshore finfish aquaculture in US federal waters, also known as the exclusive economic zone. Despite repeated calls from advocates, the Biden administration has not yet revoked EO 13921. Meanwhile, between 2017 and 2022, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has spent over $36 million on research benefiting the offshore fish farming industry.
A Call to Defend Our Oceans and Communities
The corporate takeover of our food system, particularly in the case of offshore fish farming, demands a united stand against such exploitative practices. We must reject the influence of big agribusinesses and foreign entities in shaping the future of our oceans. Instead, we must support coastal communities and small-scale fisherfolk to be the true stewards of their local ecosystems.
By advocating for sustainable fishing practices and supporting traditional fishing communities, we can ensure a future where our oceans thrive and the livelihoods of coastal residents are secure. Let us unite against offshore fish farming and demand rigorous regulation that prioritizes environmental protection and social responsibility over corporate profits. Together, we can safeguard our oceans for generations to come and ensure a healthy, sustainable food system for all. Say no to offshore fish farming!
Take Action NOW! Tell your Members of Congress to oppose the AQUAA Act, a bill that would open our waters to industrial fish farming, changing them forever.
Don’t Cage Our Oceans is a diverse coalition working together to stop the development of offshore finfish farming in the United States through federal law, policies, and coalition building. DCO2 uplifts values-based seafood systems led by local communities. We are strong as a result of our members, including the North American Marine Alliance, National Family Farm Coalition, Center for Food Safety, Food & Water Watch, Healthy Gulf, and many other local, regional and national organizations, chefs, and businesses.