Skip to main content
Skip Navigation

Risks May be Overlooked in U.S. Offshore Aquaculture Regulations

Nov 24, 2014

View Publication

A policy analysis recently conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) revealed regulatory gaps regarding occupational health and safety and other public health risks related to offshore aquaculture operations. 

The policy analysis, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, highlights eleven federal laws that could be used to limit or monitor public health risks related to offshore finfish aquaculture. These include occupational hazards, pollution from waste and uneaten feed, disease transmission, and use of drugs, chemicals, and feed additives.

Aquaculture, which refers to the breeding, rearing, and harvesting of plants and animals in water, is a rapidly expanding method of seafood production. Currently, about half of the world’s edible seafood comes from aquaculture instead of wild sources. The U.S. federal government is seeking to expand the U.S. aquaculture industry, including offshore operations in federal waters, in part due to a massive seafood trade deficit.

“The United States government is pushing to develop offshore finfish aquaculture, but significant regulatory gaps have not been addressed and moving forward could present environmental and public health risks,” says Jillian Fry, PhD, lead author of the study and director of the Public Health and Sustainable Aquaculture project at CLF. “The most concerning finding from our analysis is that no agency appears to be prepared to regulate the occupational safety and health of offshore finfish aquaculture. Specifically, the agency in charge of regulating occupational health and safety in the U.S. has no jurisdiction or regulatory experience in the waters where this production would be located.” 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, aquaculture workers experience non-fatal occupational injuries at higher rates than the national average for all industries, and moving aquaculture operations offshore may increase the risk of injury. Offshore aquaculture is hazardous for workers as it combines elements of commercial fishing and animal agriculture, both of which are dangerous professions. Aquaculture operators and employees can be exposed to hazards such as drugs, agrochemicals, pathogens, and extreme temperatures; falls from boats and cages; breathing dust from feed; musculoskeletal injuries; needle-stick injuries; and diving risks including decompression illness and even drowning. For example, a diver working on a fish farm in Hawaii drowned in 2011. 

Offshore finfish aquaculture is hotly debated, with some arguing for more comprehensive regulations or a moratorium, and others claiming that proposed regulations are impeding the financial viability of the industry. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently extended the public comment period on a regional permitting process for an offshore aquaculture industry in the Gulf of Mexico.  The new deadline for receiving public comments is November 28, 2014.

According to Fry, “The federal government must address the public health concerns, especially occupational health and safety, before moving forward with consideration of large-scale offshore finfish aquaculture in federal waters. Many of the public health risks could be addressed by current laws, but several federal agencies with relevant jurisdiction must be brought to the table and given time and resources to develop the capacity to adequately regulate this industry.”

“Offshore Finfish Aquaculture in the United States: An Examination of Federal Laws That Could be Used to Address Environmental and Occupational Public Health Risks,” was written by Jillian P. Fry, David C. Love, Arunima Shukla and Ryan M. Lee.

Funding for this study was provided by the GRACE Communications Foundation.

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future media contact: Natalie Wood-Wright at 443-287-2771 or