"Aquaculture is not the future of oyster harvests. It's the present," said Mark Luckenbach - Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
Luckenbach, based at the VIMS lab at Wachapreague, told me those words 11 years ago, when I wrote my first story about oyster aquaculture. Since then, I’ve written more than 100 stories on the topic, and someday, I hope, I’ll write a book. One thing is sure: the present has taken a long time to arrive - not just in the Chesapeake Bay, but all over the country.
Eighty to 90 percent of the seafood eaten in the United States is imported, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In Baltimore, where I live, the crabmeat at my local grocery store is not from the Chesapeake Bay. The salmon is not from this country. And striped bass? Never seen it there, though I live just an hour from where one could catch some of the nicest rockfish you could find anywhere.
NOAA officials want to change what they’re calling a $14 billion seafood trade deficit. At a webinar last week, agency officials said Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees NOAA, is committed to “eliminating barriers” to growing aquaculture here in the United States.
In Maryland, we know well some of these barriers as they relate to growing oysters. Would-be growers have spent years awaiting permission to put oysters in the water, even though the bivalves filter the water, increase biodiversity, and even spur recruitment for the Bay’s long-troubled wild oyster population, which is less than 1 percent of historic levels.
On a conference call during the webinar, federal officials touted Maryland’s permit innovations as a success. (They didn’t mention that oyster farmers have blamed NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service for some of those delays, relating to the possible impact of oyster farming on endangered marine turtles.) Maryland worked with the Baltimore District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to streamline the permit process. State and federal officials, as well as oyster farmers, report it is working more smoothly now. (NOAA officials said they had an “ombudsman” role in the process.)
As for aquaculture in the rest of the country, “It’s not for the faint of heart,” said David O’Brien, deputy director of the NOAA Fisheries Office of Aquaculture. “It’s a very challenging process that can take years. Even after several years, there’s no guarantee the permit will be issued.”
Though federal agencies have been coordinating on building up aquaculture since 1980, NOAA is fairly new to the effort. It only started its program in 2004 with a small office, O’Brien said. Now, aquaculture has shifted to “a very front and center part of our mission.”
The National Sea Grant College Program, which NOAA funds, is providing those interested in aquaculture with writing business plans, technical assistance, and navigating the permitting process. Maine Sea Grant is helping to grow kelp, which NOAA officials hope can replace kale as the new green of the moment. Wisconsin Sea Grant is working on finfish aquaculture, and there is hope that, in Chicago, entrepreneurs will circulate water from Lake Michigan in abandoned warehouses and grow fish for area restaurants. (Baltimore talked about that, too, about a decade ago. Yonathan Zohar, of the University System of Maryland's Institute of Marine & Environmental Technology, was raising sea bream and bronzini in his Inner Harbor lab and donating the fish to nearby restaurants. But he never commercialized it. It’s still not the present in either city.)
One stumbling block to aquaculture’s future: European clams and oysters cannot enter the United States, and the Europeans won’t let American molluscan shellfish cross their borders, either. The American ban isn’t NOAA’s rule; it’s the Food and Drug Administration’s, and it dates back to 2009. It has to do with how the Europeans test for pathogens; they test the meat, and we test the water.
It’s been difficult to come up with a shellfish safety protocol that works for both Europe and the United States, but O’Brien said he’s going to keep working on it. Getting that done will not only help increase markets for seafood, but could prompt multi-national companies to set up branches in the United States.
So, in the future, O’Brien said, NOAA will become more business friendly. That, he said, is one thing the new administration is clear on. How does the agency propose to do that in a time of cuts and great uncertainty (Sea Grant, at press time, was proposed to be zeroed out for 2018)? O’Brien said the administration is looking for public opinions on that matter.
He did not offer a direct line, or an email address for direct contact. But NOAA followed up with an email address for questions and comments: firstname.lastname@example.org. They say they do really want to hear from the public. Now we know where to reach them.