Shellfish Aquaculture

Shellfish farming and restoration is critical to get more oysters, clams, and mussels in the water for food, jobs, and ecosystem services.

How much is U.S. shellfish aquaculture worth?

Bivalve shellfish production represents a large and growing segment of the United States and global seafood industry. Thriving shellfish industries can be found in all coastal regions of the US. In 2015, US shellfish farmers produced 35 million pounds of oysters, 9 million pounds of clams, and 0.7 million pounds of mussels. The estimated value of these shellfish is $295 million. 

Where can I get technical assistance regarding shellfish aquaculture?

The Sea Grant and Cooperative Extension programs in each coastal state have specialists that can help prospective producers with selecting species and sites, and business plan development and implementation. Additionally, NOAA has Aquaculture Coordinators in the Northeast, Southeast, Southwest, Northwest, and Pacific Islands. Prospective producers should also contact the State Aquaculture Coordinator to identify the permitting requirements for proposed projects and to determine if cultivation grounds are available. 

Is a permit required for shellfish aquaculture gear?

There are different types of permits required depending on the geographic location, type and scope of activity, and the potential for environmental and social effects. For a traditional shellfish aquaculture project (not requiring water diversion, withdrawal or discharges), there are two main components to authorization. They are the leasing of shellfishing grounds and the permitting of aquaculture structures and/or resultant benthic modifications, in tidal or navigable waters. Leasing of public lands in the nearshore environment is almost always handled at some combination of the municipal, county or state level, in accordance with statute or regulation.

However, the federal government is charged by Congress with the responsibility to regulate the installation of structures in coastal and navigable waterways to ensure protection of their course, condition, location or capacity for commerce-related purposes. It is also required to issue permits for any activity that involves a discharge of dredged or fill material in Waters of the United States. More information on the types of permits and the permit application process can be obtained from your State Aquaculture Coordinator.

How long will it take to get a gear permit?

Most states require a minimum of 60-90 days to review applications for aquaculture, but this varies. Prospective producers should consult with their State Aquaculture Coordinator, but at a minimum plan a season ahead.

What are Shellfish Classification Areas?

Shellfish growing areas in the United States are classified into one of four types: approved, conditional, restricted and prohibited. These classifications are based on water quality standards. The National Shellfish Sanitation Program (NSSP) has created a model ordinance that sets forth the bacteriological standards to be used for shellfish classification. Shellfish may only be directly harvested for human consumption from approved waters. Shellfish taken from other areas must be depurated.

Do I need a permit to sell or import shellfish?

Producers cannot sell their product directly to the public unless they process their product through a certified shellfish processing facility and are conforming to the National Shellfish Sanitation Program. To learn more about shellfish sanitation standards, see  A permit is also required for the importation of shellfish larvae, seed and adults. Consult with your State Aquaculture Coordinator

How much will it cost to obtain a permit for shellfish aquaculture?

This varies by state, and can range from zero to tens of thousands of dollars. The major costs are usually associated with leasing and/or licensing of public trust grounds and permits to place structures or fill in the marine environment. In addition, some states require that a federal Environmental Impact Assessment be conducted by either the applicant or a hired professional. Consult with your State Aquaculture Coordinator for more information and help with the permitting process. 

What rights does the aquaculture permit confer to the aquaculturist?

This depends on the type of license, permit, etc. and varies by state. In some states, aquaculturists are allowed to lease public trust grounds and are given exclusive rights to the shellfish and activity in those areas. Whereas license agreements for shellfish grounds provide the grower with few rights other than to cultivate shellfish for a defined period of time.

What are Best Management Practices?

Best Management Practices (BMPs) are general overarching principles and specific procedures used to guide the day-to-day operation of aquaculture businesses to improve production while preserving the environment. Compliance with these BMPs can be voluntary or mandated and can by driven by industry, environmental groups or regulatory agencies. 

What are the major concerns with respect to aquaculture and the environment?

The principal concerns are generally considered to be: water quality degradation, changes in sediment chemistry and composition, habitat degradation, altered biodiversity and community structure, introduction of non-native species including predators, pests and disease, spread of harmful algal blooms, and the loss of genetic diversity in wild shellfish populations.