The race to stop fish from becoming factory farming’s next nightmare

In May 2020, the Trump administration signed an executive order urging federal authorities to prioritize deep-sea aquaculture. Three months later, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) officially designated the Gulf of Mexico and the waters off southern California as the nation’s premier “Aquaculture Opportunity Zones,” which are reserved for between three and five commercial aquaculture farms. The main driver of the Trump administration’s push for aquaculture was a desire to make the country more food secure, but as critics of the move point out, America already exports about 84% of its domestically caught fish, some of which ultimately come down to opponents of deep-sea aquaculture in the United States claiming that large fish farms will harm coastal fishing communities and not help people who really need access healthy and inexpensive sources of protein. “As far as access to food goes, a lot of that fish is not getting on the plates of those who need it most,” says Niaz Dorry, coordinating director of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, an advocacy group led by fishermen. Instead of focusing on fish farms that only produce a handful of species, we should be eating a much wider range of fish that can be caught sustainably by local communities who depend on the industry, says- she.

In August 2020, the push for deep sea agriculture in the United States was shaken when a court ruled that NOAA had no authority to designate areas of opportunity for aquaculture, the debate likely continuing on Capitol Hill. But for Cufone, the looming threat from fish farms is just another symptom of a country where people are too often disconnected from where their food comes from – a problem that goes far beyond fishing.

“What I would like to see is a series of small local farms producing food for their own communities,” Cufone says. In the Central City neighborhood of New Orleans, she built a small aquaponics farm powered mostly by solar power and rainwater, which raises catfish alongside green vegetables, tomatoes, cucumbers and of melons. In the past, the farm sold the fish to local restaurants and bags of fruits and vegetables to local residents. “We live in a very low-income area and one of the main purposes of the farm was to provide food for very low-income, low-resource residents,” she says. “There’s something to be said for community awareness, for understanding how difficult it is to grow food, and for understanding the real value of farms and farmers.”

If the world hears the call for healthier and more sustainable diets, then how we produce fish is set to become one of the defining issues for the future of food. From where we are now, two things are clear. First, the share of wild-caught fish will likely continue to decline as the aquaculture industry continues to thrive. Second, the aquaculture industry is on the verge of coming to terms, as businesses and governments grapple with the environmental impacts of fish farming. However, there are many signs that the industry is learning at least some of the lessons from the livestock industry and the environmental chaos it unleashed by rapidly industrializing. Innovators like Goldman, Fitzsimmons and Hubert are already laying the groundwork for a future where animal protein doesn’t have to come at such a high environmental cost.

Adapted from The future of food: how to feed the planet without destroying it by Matt Reynolds. Learn more and order your copy of the book.

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