Near- and Offshore Finfish Aquaculture Poses Risks to the Environment and Public Health – John Hopkins University


New report just in from the Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at John Hopkins University. Follow the links below for the full transcript of the report.


Expanding the nearshore finfish industry or establishing an offshore industry in the United States carries significant risks to aquatic ecosystems and public health, according to a report published today by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future in the Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health and Engineering.

Near- and offshore finfish aquaculture (NOFA) is a method of fish production that occurs in net pens or cages with free exchange of water with the surrounding environment. Although there are currently very few US NOFA operations, some stakeholders have expressed interest in developing the industry in US state and federal waters.

The report assesses whether an expanded industry in the US would be environmentally sound and safe based on current production practices. The research team found the major issues surrounding NOFA to be: large numbers of recent farmed fish escapes, infectious disease outbreaks on farms, development of drug resistant parasites and bacteria, persistence of veterinary drugs in the environment, fish waste causing local and regional ecosystem impacts, and dangers that could cause elevated rates of injury and death among workers. The research team notes that some of these issues can be minimized or addressed with improved regulation and monitoring. Other issues, such as fish escapes and release of fish waste, are inevitable outcomes of fish farming in open water systems as currently practiced.

“The recent net pen breach of more than 160,000 farmed Atlantic salmon near Puget Sound is an illustrative example of how things can go wrong with these kinds of operations,” said Jillian Fry, PhD, director of the Public Health & Sustainable Aquaculture Project at CLF and faculty member in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering. “Globally, many millions of fish have escaped net pen farms. Unfortunately, this is not a new problem to fish farming in coastal or ocean waters.”

Proponents of increasing NOFA operations in the US commonly highlight improvements in specific production practices, but it is often unclear how widely improvements have been adopted. Researchers say the tendency to rely upon the application of existing laws, instead of creating a new regulatory system specifically for aquaculture, has led to regulatory gaps. As a result, many risks described in the report are not adequately monitored or addressed under current US law.

The authors further state that to reduce the potential for conflicts of interest, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which oversees these finfish operations with other federal agencies, should separate their roles of policy and regulatory development from that of industry promotion. They are concerned that the current situation could lead to decisions that favor industry growth and profitability at the expense of protections for ecosystems and public health.

“Putting NOFA operations in the Gulf of Mexico and other regions is expected to be increasingly risky due to severe weather events associated with climate change. The regulations we currently have in place are simply not designed to effectively handle these risks,” said Fry. “Based on the studies included in our report, NOAA should not approve new operations or implement new permitting in additional regions of the US until the recommendations we’ve outlined are fully implemented.”

Ecosystem and Public Health Risks from Near- and Offshore Finfish Aquaculture and Policy Changes Needed to Address Current Risks” was written by Jillian P. Fry, David C. Love, and Gabriel Innes.

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