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NCCOS Project

Marine Cage Culture and the Environment

This project began in October 2010 and was completed in March 2012

We conducted a comprehensive review and analysis of global research on the environmental effects of marine cage culture. This analysis comprises the latest knowledge of water quality and benthic impacts across a wide range of marine trophic levels—from primary producers to marine mammals.

Why We Care
In the past, marine fish farms had severe harmful impacts, but advances in technology and industry practices have greatly diminished those effects. To provide an updated perspective on the role of modern farms, we reviewed over 500 studies published since 2000 to provide a current review of the environmental effects of marine cage culture around the world (see Marine Cage Culture and the Environment publication below). Our investigation focused on water quality, sediment chemistry, and marine life around fish farms. We also discuss the impacts of contaminants such as antibiotics, therapeutants, and antifoulants. Last, we present various management tools such as fallowing, integrated multi-trophic aquaculture, and planning using integrated modeling approaches.

What We Are Doing
We provide comprehensive scientific information about marine aquaculture for:

  1. Farm owners and operators to learn more about the current state of knowledge regarding the environmental effects of cage culture and to guide siting and other farm management practices.
  2. NOAA and other regulatory agencies to develop and implement the permitting and monitoring processes for the aquaculture industry in the U.S. These organizations provide the scientific basis for outreach and education.
  3. The research community to guide future research to improve our knowledge of how cages function within the marine ecosystem, help improve farm efficiency, and further decrease environmental effects.
  4. Coastal communities to make good decisions about the environmentally sustainable economic opportunities that aquaculture offers.

We conducted a workshop to collect critiques and recommendations from an international panel of aquaculture experts. We are learning how to effectively incorporate the findings of our analysis in the development and validation of environmental impact models to support the needs of industry and agency partners.

This review provides an optimistic and forward looking synopsis for marine cage culture in the U.S. It is evident that industry expansion can be sustainable if best practices and adaptive management strategies are embraced.

Next Steps
The information we compiled will be used to inform and support the development of sustainable offshore aquaculture in the U.S. We are working with partners to develop guidelines for best management practices and monitoring protocols to ensure environmental protection, while supporting growth of a domestic seafood production industry. The science compiled in this report is also being used to refine predictive mathematical modeling tools models that link physical, chemical, and bioenergetic processes specific to culture conditions at marine fish farms.

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NCCOS delivers ecosystem science solutions for stewardship of the nation’s ocean and coastal resources to sustain thriving coastal communities and economies.

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