The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published a final rule on January 13 that implements the Fishery Management Plan for Regulating Offshore Marine Aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico (Gulf Aquaculture Plan). The plan allows for the first time the commercial farming and harvesting of seafood fish in federal waters off the Gulf of Mexico.1 It is intended to encourage commercial farming and harvesting of seafood in federal waters and has the potential to significantly expand US seafood production and trade. The Gulf Aquaculture Plan took effect on September 3, 2009, and this final rule implementing it will take effect on February 12, 2016.

Aquaculture or aquafarming is the practice of raising marine species in controlled environments rather than harvesting them in the wild. According to NOAA, US aquaculture production yields approximately $1.3 billion annually, which is several times less than the $5 billion annual production of wild-capture fisheries.2 Nevertheless, global aquaculture supplies half of the world’s seafood, and the aquaculture industry is expected to increase significantly in the next decade.3

Currently, there are no commercial aquaculture operations in US federal waters, which begin three to nine nautical miles off the state coasts and extend offshore for 200 miles, although there are such operations in state waters. Prior to the Gulf Aquaculture Plan, an exempted fishing permit was required to conduct aquaculture in federal waters, and the permit was valid for only one year. NOAA concluded that the limited permit duration was not a viable option for many commercial aquaculture operations.

The Gulf Aquaculture Plan is intended to encourage greater seafood production via offshore aquaculture that will help meet the growing consumer demand for seafood and reduce US dependence on seafood imports. Under the plan, NOAA fisheries may permit up to 20 operations within a 10-year period.4 Thereafter, the permit must be renewed in five-year increments. The Gulf Aquaculture Plan allows for the culture of all species native to the Gulf Coast, except for shrimp and coral, and caps annual production for all facilities at 64 million pounds.

The final rule imposes monitoring, recordkeeping, and reporting requirements to review permits and evaluate environmental effects. Those with permits must also comply with operational and monitoring requirements applicable to aquaculture (see 50 C.F.R. Part 622 and 40 C.F.R. Part 451), as well as with US Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, and Food and Drug Administration requirements regarding the use of biologics, pesticides, and drugs.