Understanding Marine Aquaculture
The United States has a small and vibrant commercial marine aquaculture industry supported by world class research and technology.
Marine aquaculture (or farmed seafood) is vital for supporting our nation’s seafood production, year-round jobs, rebuilding protected species and habitats, and enhancing coastal resilience. Aquaculture—the breeding, rearing, and harvesting of animals and plants in all types of water environments—is one of the most resource-efficient ways to produce protein. It has helped improve nutrition and food security in many parts of the world. Globally, aquaculture supplies more than 50 percent of all seafood produced for human consumption—and that percentage will continue to rise.
At NOAA Fisheries, we support cutting-edge science and research as well as federal policy making and regulation to grow sustainable aquaculture in the United States while supporting commercial and recreational fisheries. We also support science, policies, and regulations that allow communities to reap the social, economic, and environmental benefits of aquaculture. We foster responsible aquaculture that provides safe, sustainable seafood; creates employment and business opportunities in coastal communities; and complements NOAA’s comprehensive strategy for maintaining healthy and productive marine populations, ecosystems, and vibrant coastal communities.
The United States produced $1.5 billion worth of aquaculture seafood in 2018. The top U.S. marine aquaculture species were oysters ($219 million), clams ($122 million), and Atlantic salmon ($66 million).
The value of U.S. aquaculture production equals 21% of the value of total U.S. seafood production.
The United States imports about 75% of its seafood, and nearly 50% of the imported seafood is produced via aquaculture.
Oceans cover 71% of the Earth’s surface, but currently account for only 2% of our food supply. With limited arable land and freshwater, the world is turning to the oceans for additional food supply as the global population is projected to reach 9 billion by the year 2050.
We are working hard to foster the growth of aquaculture in the United States not only to help meet U.S. seafood demand, but also to help encourage job growth. We are involved in a variety of aquaculture activities around the country and offer assistance through our regional aquaculture coordinators.
Fisheries and aquaculture remain important sources of food, nutrition, income and livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people around the world. World per capita fish supply reached a new record high of 20 kg in 2014. This is thanks to vigorous growth in aquaculture and to a slight improvement in the state of certain fish stocks due to improved fisheries management. Aquaculture now provides half of all fish for human consumption.
Shellfish farming and restoration is critical to get more oysters, clams, and mussels in the water for food, jobs, and ecosystem services. We are working with partners to address environmental research, spatial planning, permitting, restoration, and farming techniques for shellfish aquaculture.
In the United States, aquaculture technologies and management practices have continued to evolve through lessons learned and significant public and private research focused on bringing greater efficiency, sustainability, and cost-effectiveness to aquaculture. A variety of techniques and technologies—each with its own advantages and disadvantages—can be used to raise finfish.
There are a number of financial assistance programs that support sustainable aquaculture in the United States. Funding can address a variety of issues such as environmental monitoring, recirculating aquaculture systems, shellfish farming, alternative feeds, new species research, and offshore aquaculture.
Many stakeholders want to understand the challenges and benefits of aquaculture, especially as communities look for ways to maintain working waterfronts and diversify their seafood portfolio. Providing outreach materials with accurate information about aquaculture research, management practices, and key initiatives is vital to cultivating public understanding of farmed seafood.
United States marine aquaculture operates within one of the most comprehensive regulatory environments in the world. Aquaculture operations must meet a number of federal, state, and local regulations that ensure environmental protection, water quality, and healthy oceans. Science and transparent public engagement inform NOAA policy, regulatory, and management decisions regarding sustainable aquaculture development.
The National Aquaculture Act of 1980 established aquaculture as a national policy priority for the United States. It also created an interagency Subcommittee on Aquaculture, through which NOAA coordinates with other federal agencies on regulatory, policy, economic, and science aquaculture-related activities.
NOAA Fisheries plays a central role in developing and implementing aquaculture policies for both NOAA and the Department of Commerce. NOAA ensures that aquaculture activities comply with federal laws, regulating marine aquaculture under a suite of federal statutes designed to sustain healthy oceans.
Both established in 2011, these policies provide federal guidance for all aquaculture-related activities at NOAA and the Department of Commerce.
A May 2020 Executive Order, Promoting American Seafood Competitiveness and Economic Growth, calls for the expansion of sustainable U.S. seafood production.
Section 6 states that NOAA will serve as the lead agency for National Environmental Policy Act review for aquaculture projects when the projects meet all three of the following criteria:
As lead agency, NOAA is responsible for completing the environmental impact statement process in cooperation with the main permitting agencies.
NOAA is identifying Aquaculture Opportunity Areas, defined geographic areas that have been evaluated to determine their potential suitability for commercial aquaculture. NOAA is using the best available science and public input to look for spaces that are environmentally, socially, and economically appropriate for aquaculture development.
NOAA Fisheries’ Guide to Permitting Marine Aquaculture in the United States assists individuals with navigating the federal permitting process for marine aquaculture (finfish, shellfish, invertebrates, seaweed). The Guide to Federal Aquaculture Grant and Financial Assistance Services lists programs for which aquaculture farmers or aquaculture researchers may be eligible.
The Subcommittee on Aquaculture is preparing a National Aquaculture Development Plan. It supports the expansion of existing operations, encourages new entrants, and maximizes the effectiveness of existing federal policies and programs, while strengthening public-private partnerships.
NOAA is a co-chair of the Subcommittee on Aquaculture. The subcommittee coordinates federal agencies to increase the overall effectiveness and productivity of federal aquaculture research, regulation, technology transfer, and assistance programs.
The National Shellfish Initiative aims to increase populations of bivalve shellfish (oysters, clams, and mussels) in our nation's coastal waters through commercial production and conservation activities. Efforts focus on encouraging shellfish aquaculture, advancing science and research, and promoting regulatory efficiencies at federal, state, and local levels.
The Washington Shellfish Initiative was the first partnership to focus on restoring and expanding resources to promote shellfish aquaculture and create family-wage jobs within Washington state. Today, there are a growing number of states with shellfish initiatives.
We are working to address the technical and scientific barriers of marine aquaculture and to provide science information for management in a number of ways. We do this through in-house research at NOAA, grants and cooperative agreements with Sea Grant and other stakeholders, and by coordinating research with other federal agencies.
Several NOAA Fisheries Science Centers explore a wide spectrum of aquaculture issues. These include the culture of specific species, life-cycle analysis, alternative feeds, ocean acidification, and habitat benefits and impacts.
For example, the Northeast Fisheries Science Center Milford Laboratory, established in 1931, is located on the shore of Long Island Sound. The facility comprises two laboratory/office buildings and support buildings housing raceway and circular tanks. A 49-foot vessel, the R/V Victor Loosanoff, is also docked at the Laboratory for nearshore research. Present research emphasizes aquaculture and habitat-related work. The aquaculture program includes studies of the culture of fish and shellfish to develop methods suitable for commercial use as well as for stock enhancement and restoration. Nearshore habitats are being studied to determine what characteristics make a habitat suitable for a particular species.
Additionally, the Northwest Fisheries Science Center Environmental and Fisheries Science Division conducts research to improve methods for fisheries restoration and production in conservation hatcheries and in aquaculture. Research focuses on the effects of ocean acidification on shellfish, shellfish safety (harmful algal blooms and pathogens), and native Olympia oyster restoration. Lab research also includes alternative marine fish feeds, larval fish physiology and nutrition.
At the NOAA Beaufort Laboratory, scientists from NOAA Fisheries and National Ocean Service conduct a variety of research including harmful algal blooms, seafloor mapping, and aquaculture.
NOAA has marine aquaculture research capabilities at in-house laboratories within NOAA Fisheries and the National Ocean Service. We also have research and extension capabilities through state Sea Grant programs. This story map covers the in-house projects funded by the NOAA Fisheries Office of Aquaculture. The research explores a wide spectrum of relevant aquaculture issues. These include the culture of specific species, life-cycle analysis, alternative feeds, ocean acidification, and potential habitat benefits and impacts. This Story Map serves as a tool to highlight NOAA's aquaculture research and as well as to connect researchers with topics of common interest. It is updated periodically as new projects are planned and implemented.
Since 1998, NOAA has funded aquaculture projects through the Sea Grant Marine Aquaculture grant program, a competitive grants program coordinated by the National Sea Grant College Program. Several other grant opportunities are administered or funded through NOAA Fisheries. Together these grants have funded projects that have responded to key scientific, engineering, environmental, and economic questions. These include studies of candidate species, health and nutrition, best management practices, ecosystems monitoring and management, engineered production systems, and legal and operational frameworks.
Aquaculture is present along our coasts and in our oceans across the nation. Activities and products vary by region so we have regional coordinators supporting these activities and increasing awareness of region-specific issues.
The Alaska mariculture industry produces shellfish and aquatic plants along Alaska’s coastline. As of 2016, mariculture activity in Alaska consists of approximately 75 operations, including 65 authorized farms, seven nurseries, and three hatcheries. Most operations are located along the coastline in either Southeast or Southcentral Alaska.
The New England/Mid-Atlantic region has a commercial marine aquaculture industry supported by a research and technology sector. Landings from marine aquaculture (predominantly Atlantic Salmon and oysters, but also clams, mussels, and other species) totaled approximately $219 million in this region in 2013. This makes aquaculture the third most valuable fishery in the region in terms of economic revenue, behind scallops and American lobster.
Farmed items in New England and the Mid-Atlantic include finfish, shellfish, and sea vegetables grown as food for human consumption. Hatchery-raised species are also used habitat (e.g., oyster) and endangered species (e.g., Atlantic salmon) restoration.
In the Pacific Northwest, we work closely with regional tribes, the states of Washington, Oregon, and California, the aquaculture industry, and non-governmental organizations. This work focuses on fish, shellfish, and algae species. Washington State is our nation's leading producer of farmed shellfish. The region primarily grows oysters, mussels, clam, as well as Atlantic and Pacific salmon species.
We also work with partners to responsibly restore populations of native Olympia oysters, pinto abalone, and Pacific salmon. Aquaculture-related research at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center focuses on the effects of ocean acidification on shellfish, shellfish safety (harmful algal blooms and pathogens), and native Olympia oyster restoration.
The Pacific Islands region primarily grows finfish, such as kampachi (Seriola rivoliana), shrimp, and marine algae for commercial purposes.
In the southeast, marine aquaculture focuses on stock enhancement, food production, research, and restoration efforts. Species cultured in the region include oysters, clams, red drum, spotted sea trout, flounder, snook, pompano, black sea bass, and algae. Aquaculture occurs on land in recirculating systems or ponds as well as in coastal areas or state waters. We have also provided funding for projects related to culture of red snapper, blackfin tuna, cobia, and baitfish species as well as for research into alternative diets for marine finfish.
California primarily grows Pacific oysters, Kumamoto oysters, and manila clams for commercial purposes. They also farm Mediterranean mussels, Atlantic oysters, red abalone, rock scallops, and seaweed. Research in the Southwest focuses on abalone recovery at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center and Olympia oyster restoration by various sectors of academia, primarily in the San Francisco Bay area.
Sustainably farmed seafood is a smart choice for healthy people, a healthy economy, and a healthy planet. Most of the public still has limited understanding of aquaculture and may encounter information that can be out of date, inaccurate, or incomplete. Science communications sources that share accurate information can increase aquaculture and sustainable seafood literacy.
Each region of the United States features different ecosystems, a variety of water temperatures, and many different species. Just like their wild counterparts, aquaculture species need the right conditions to grow. Explore the regional aquaculture fact sheets to learn about the species, grow-out methods used, and the economic importance of aquaculture by region.
Seafood farming, if done responsibly—as it is in the US—is increasingly recognized as one of the most environmentally sustainable ways to produce food and protein. Farmed seafood requires far less feed than most terrestrial animals, and thirty years of lessons learned have been put into practice in U.S. aquaculture farm management and regulatory requirements. Learn more about the many facets of science-based, sustainable aquaculture in the U.S.:
Marine aquaculture refers to the breeding, rearing, and harvesting of aquatic plants and animals. Faced with limited fresh water and land resources, seafood farmers are cultivating the ocean. These videos explore the challenges and benefits of marine aquaculture:
Choosing to eat more seafood is good for your health and the environment. Use these guides to master easy and flavorful seafood recipes:
Not sure where to start? Check out Seafood: A Fare for Every Palate for help choosing a recipe.
An Aquaculture Opportunity Area is a defined geographic area that has been evaluated to determine its potential suitability for commercial aquaculture.
NOAA will use a combination of scientific analysis and public engagement to identify areas that are environmentally, socially, and economically appropriate for commercial aquaculture.
NOAA has directives to preserve ocean sustainability and facilitate domestic aquaculture in the United States through the National Aquaculture Act of 1980, the NOAA Marine Aquaculture Policy, and Executive Order 13921, “Promoting American Seafood Competitiveness and Economic Growth” (May 7, 2020). NOAA has a variety of proven science-based tools and strategies that can support these directives. These help communities thoughtfully consider how and where to sustainably develop offshore aquaculture that will complement wild-capture fisheries, working waterfronts, and our nation’s seafood processing and distribution infrastructure.
Identifying AOAs is an opportunity to use the best available global science-based guidance on sustainable aquaculture management and support the “triple bottom line” of environmental, economic, and social sustainability. This approach has been refined and utilized widely within states and by other countries with robust, sustainable aquaculture sectors.
Considering NOAA-trust resources and stakeholder uses of a defined area will help to encourage the sustainable growth of aquaculture. This is done by siting aquaculture farms in ways that minimize impacts to those natural resources and reduce user conflicts while maximizing public input in the AOA identification process.
NOAA’s Aquaculture Program is already moving forward to meet the mandates set by the White House. We recently announced the selection of southern California and the Gulf of Mexico as the first regions for focused evaluation to find AOAs. This selection does not mean the entire regions are opportunity areas. Instead, the selection allows NOAA to deploy our resources to investigate the two regions.
The exact AOA locations will be identified based on best-available science. This includes data-driven siting analysis using hundreds of types of data on ocean conditions and uses such as existing fishing locations. Stakeholder input is also essential and these AOAs will be shaped through a public process.
NOAA Fisheries invited public comment on two aspects of AOAs during a 60-day public comment period. The agency requested information on (1) specific areas to consider for the first two AOAs within the Gulf of Mexico and waters off Southern California; and (2) other areas NOAA should consider nationally for future AOAs.
NOAA has released two Atlases compiling the best available science to inform the identification of AOAs in the Gulf of Mexico and Southern California. Areas in the Atlases have characteristics expected to support multiple types of aquaculture industries including finfish, shellfish, seaweed, or some combination.
NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science developed each Atlas using more than 200 data layers accounting for key environmental, economic, social, and cultural considerations, including fishing interests and marine protected areas. The studies identified nine areas in the Gulf of Mexico and 10 areas in the Southern California Bight that may be suitable for aquaculture, while also reducing conflicts with other ocean uses.