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New NOAA Aquaculture Regulations Ignore Occupational Safety

Jan 13, 2016

On Monday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued the first-ever federal regulations for large-scale offshore aquaculture operations. This development has been closely followed by The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF), through the submission of a formal comment to NOAA in October 2014 and the publication of a study in November 2014, which revealed regulatory gaps regarding occupational health and safety and other public health risks related to offshore finfish aquaculture operations. 

“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,” says Jillian Fry, PhD, MPH, Director of the Public Health and Sustainable Aquaculture Project at CLF. This is concerning because offshore finfish aquaculture combines two dangerous occupations with high injury rates—offshore fishing and agriculture. Fry pressed NOAA for an answer to this oversight, but the agency failed to adequately respond to the concern and stated that, “Issues related to the occupational safety and health of those employed by offshore aquaculture operations are outside NMFS’ jurisdiction and the scope of this rulemaking, and not addressed here.”

“Despite voicing our concerns, it appears no agency is taking action to develop and oversee occupational health and safety for offshore finfish aquaculture,” says Fry.

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, and this raises questions about the likelihood of domestically farmed seafood to be eaten in the U.S. “Allowing this type of seafood production will not only reduce U.S. dependency on imports, but also provide a domestic source of sustainable fish protein and create jobs,” explains Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for fisheries. However, Fry challenges this notion because a significant amount of domestic wild caught seafood in the U.S. is exported. NOAA currently lacks a plan to ensure that the increase in domestically produced farmed fish will remain in the U.S. instead of increasing the amount exported, which means Americans will continue to eat imported seafood that may not be properly inspected.