Fostering the domestic aquaculture industry is vital to enhancing climate resilient food systems and community health for the nation. An important building block in aquaculture expansion is the science-based planning process to create Aquaculture Opportunity Areas. Over the summer NOAA announced that the federal waters off southern California and in the Gulf of Mexico were selected for evaluation for the first two AOAs. With this selection, NOAA kicked off a rigorous public outreach effort that included engagement with stakeholder groups, development of video and print products, and hosting five public listening sessions. These outreach efforts provided a channel for stakeholders to share their insights and are vital as the agency works to foster domestic aquaculture opportunities.
For the past several months NOAA’s aquaculture team has been incredibly busy reaching out to stakeholders from the commercial and recreational fishing community, academia, NGOs, coastal managers, and many others though webinars and public listening sessions. “While program staff reached out to many key stakeholders organizations, the public listening session offered all interested parties the opportunity to share their comments and ideas,” said Danielle Blacklock, Director of the Office of Aquaculture. “Through these efforts we created a two-way dialogue that both introduced the concept of AOAs and ensured that stakeholders had a voice in the process.”
As part of these outreach efforts, NOAA also opened a 60 day comment period. Through this comment period, interested stakeholders provided relevant information on the identification of areas within the Gulf of Mexico and waters off Southern California for the first two AOAs and on what areas NOAA should consider nationally for future AOAs. Public comments can be viewed through the Federal Register.
“NOAA received approximately 100 public comments through the listening sessions and the public comment period,” said Kristy Beard, Policy Analyst for the Office of Aquaculture. “Common themes included the importance of local coastal communities benefiting from AOAs, concerns of potential impacts to water quality, and suggestions on areas to investigate for future AOA development.”
Next Steps for AOAs
Equipped with this stakeholder insight NOAA continues to develop AOAs to ensure planned, smart, and sustainable growth of the aquaculture industry. “The next steps in the process for AOAs includes completing the spatial planning and moving into the programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) process for both southern California and the Gulf of Mexico” added Beard. There will be additional opportunities for public input during the PEIS process.
Along with moving forward AOA development in southern California and the Gulf of Mexico, NOAA plans to announce the region(s) for the next AOAs in the coming months. This upcoming selection will allow NOAA to focus the agency’s spatial planning and outreach efforts in a region.
Key to expanding sustainable aquaculture and identifying AOAs, is decreasing user conflicts for ocean space and taking a holistic view of an area. Through this in-depth, multiple year planning process NOAA is committed to working with stakeholders to find the right space for AOAs. Smart growth of a domestic aquaculture industry will diversity U.S. seafood production and provide important economic opportunities in the face of economic and environmental uncertainty.