"We must plant the sea and herd its animals," the late ocean researcher Jacques Cousteau said more than 40 years ago, "using the sea as farmers instead of hunters."
Scientists who share the vision of thriving fish farms off the California coast met at workshops this year and last sponsored by the NOAA Sea Grant program.
NOAA, the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, this year opened federal waters on the U.S. Gulf Coast to aquaculture, and a private commercial venture hopes to build a massive fish farm off San Diego on the Pacific Coast.
Ocean farms must be situated carefully, based on ocean currents, depth and other conditions, and scientists must watch for potential pollutants and disease, said Jerry Schubel, president and CEO of the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California. Schubel is one of the scientists advocating for aquaculture in federal waters off California. He says fish farmers must only breed native species to maintain the balance of the region's ecology.
Some environmentalists are worried about the impact, and Schubel says that fish farming has been done badly in some places where pollutants have entered the food chain.
"We should start with a couple of farms that are located in the right spots, monitor them very carefully, set high standards, and that would relieve some of the concern that many in the public have," he said.
Aquaculture booming worldwide
"Populations of wild fish in the oceans today are approximately half or less than half of what they historically were," said Paul Olin of California Sea Grant, based at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography near San Diego.
He says the shortfall is being made up through land-based and ocean-based aquaculture, which together account for more than half of all seafood produced for human consumption.
Americans are the world's third largest seafood eaters, after the Chinese and Japanese, and U.S. demand is growing. Yellowtail and striped bass are prime candidates for fish farms in coastal California, as are red drum and cobia on the Gulf Coast.
China and other Asian countries are world leaders in aquaculture. Other major producers include Norway and Chile.
The United States has lagged, partly because of its productive fisheries, said James Morris of NOAA's National Ocean Service and National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, "but we know that going forward in the future that aquaculture is a solution to the growing demand for seafood," he said.
The commercial venture off San Diego hopes to place 48 underwater cages off the coast, each 11,000 cubic meters. It would eventually harvest 10 million fish a year. Federal officials are evaluating the proposal, which has many hurdles to clear. It’s timeline is unclear.
There are fish farms in state waters and several mussel farms in federal waters off the coasts of California and Massachusetts.