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It's Time for the U.S. to Invest in Sustainable Aquaculture

Making the case for American offshore aquaculture

The James Beard Foundation’s Smart Catch program is an educational assessment program that supports chefs in their efforts to prioritize environmentally sustainable seafood when developing their menus. Since 2016, in partnership with Postelsia, the James Beard Foundation gives Smart Catch Leader seals to those that qualify as a way to show their commitment to sustainability.

The program relaunched in early 2022 after taking a necessary pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and has expanded its standards to allow top performers to be recognized in the program as “Smart Catch Ambassadors.” The Ambassador category, in addition to requiring high sustainability performance goals, also requires chefs to demonstrate their sustainable seafood advocacy in some way.

Chefs play a key role in bettering our local and national food systems. They’ve become champions for small farmers, seasonal ingredients, and sustainable business practices. U.S. chefs are well-known for celebrating farmers and fishers alike, but not necessarily fish farmers. Chefs bridge the gap between the farm and the fork—transforming raw ingredients into beautiful, delicious, exciting meals. In doing so, chefs influence the demand for what we grow, what our grocery stores stock, what we put on our plates, and how we think and talk about food. As an industry, we have a great opportunity to start a new conversation about aquaculture with chefs as ambassadors. With chefs’ innovative approach to their craft, their customer (and public) following, and their knowledge of seafood supply issues, they are uniquely positioned to advocate for sustainable aquaculture to both consumers and lawmakers.

One way chefs are becoming advocates for farming seafood sustainably is through the Coalition for Sustainable Aquaculture (CSA). Convened by the Environmental Defense Fund, CSA is a partnership of environmental advocates, industry leaders, and award-winning chefs who are coming together to chart a responsible path forward for a safe, sustainable, and science-based offshore aquaculture industry in U.S. waters. Postelsia is pleased to be a part of the CSA to show its support for sustainable aquaculture.

By advocating for government studies and rigorous on-the-water pilot programs, the CSA aims to build a strong regulatory framework that will allow us to meet the growing demand for healthy, delicious seafood right here at home while protecting our environment, creating jobs and economic opportunities, and boosting coastal communities to the benefit of all Americans.

Matching these types of initiatives is exactly what the new version of Smart Catch is designed to do and supporting the CSA makes a lot of sense at this critical juncture in the development of the U.S. aquaculture industry. To learn more, visit the Coalition for Sustainable Aquaculture.

The U.S. has a massive seafood trade deficit, resulting in roughly 80% of the seafood we consume being imported. Simply put, we export most of our seafood for the rest of the world to enjoy, and in trade, we generally import lower quality seafood for our own consumption. Nearly 2.5 billion pounds of our imported seafood is farm-raised in other countries, translating to more than half of all the seafood on the American plate originating from countries that we have no regulatory control over. That means the farmed sea bass, salmon, or shrimp in many U.S. kitchens is often produced in countries without rigorous environmental and health standards or social equity practices. To make sourcing seafood easier and more sustainable, we need to be able to farm our seafood here at home.

Despite the fact that we consume an estimated 6.3 billion pounds of seafood per year, the U.S. ranks 17th in global aquaculture production, producing a mere 1 million pounds of marine aquaculture annually. In addition, the U.S. is one of the largest land masses on the planet, with the second-largest Exclusive Economic Zone* in the world. We also have an extremely favorable financial landscape that can support much-needed investment into offshore aquaculture companies. Even tech companies like Alphabet, Google's parent company, are building technologies for aquaculture that will streamline production and create systems that track key sustainability performance data in real-time. The X, Alphabet's moonshot factory (formerly Google[x]), has created Project Tidal, a technology that tracks fish biometrics by the second, and could potentially be adapted for sustainability purposes. All of this presents a strong argument for expanding our aquaculture industry into offshore Federal waters—a large area that presents vast opportunities for increasing responsible, domestic seafood production. Most importantly, we must do it right, so we can increase access to healthy and nutritious protein in every corner of the country while also growing inclusive and equitable jobs for our coastal communities.

Farmed salmon plated up by chef Sammy Monsour (photo courtesy of Sammy Monsour)

Creating a Recipe for a Sustainable Industry

To “do it right,” we must first build a strong regulatory framework that protects our environment, creates economic opportunities, and supports coastal communities. A solid regulatory framework that is informed by and supported by many stakeholders can get us there. There’s strength in numbers!

Second, we need a certification program that tracks performance data and presents it in a way that allows concerned stakeholders to understand the progress of the industry. U.S. technology companies could play a key role in tracking data that will create the much-needed social license for the industry to be successful. Imagine if real-time sustainability data from farms 100 miles offshore was available for consumers via Google Tidal technology.

Third, we need the right group of advocates to help create the social license in support of the industry. The U.S. is full of world class chefs that have already been activated as advocates for sustainable seafood (for example, James Beard Smart Catch program). This group can play a key role in moving this conversation forward.

Finally, we need to acknowledge the privilege that we all have living in North America. With such a staggering seafood trade deficit, the rest of the world is currently bearing the burden of producing our food for us. There are many criticisms of how they do it, which are fair. What is less fair is to continue to import as much seafood as we do without producing our fair share. In addition, the U.S. has had success in reforming its fisheries management with legislation such as the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which has become a global standard for strong science-based fisheries management. The U.S. has the same opportunity to become global leaders for sustainable science-based offshore aquaculture.

Together, we must develop best practices for sustainable production of healthy seafood that meets our environmental and health standards—because the growth of aquaculture in our ocean is a matter of when and how, not if and where.

Still on the Fence about Aquaculture?

Aquaculture is the water farming of aquatic animals and plants, and is both ancient, and the fastest-growing form of food protein production on the planet. Global aquaculture production totals roughly 120 million metric tons per year and continues to grow. Across the board, it also happens to be one of the most efficient forms of protein production. Marine aquaculture requires far less feed, pound-in to pound-out, than the production of beef, chicken or pork. It also requires less energy to produce, depends on zero fresh water and, on average, contributes a fraction of the anthropogenic greenhouse gases compared to the production of other animal proteins. Alas, modern aquaculture has earned a bad reputation due to legitimate and well-documented impacts of certain aquaculture industries, such as salmon and shrimp. There have been issues with high use of wild fish in feed, mangrove destruction, pollution impacts, and in some cases, serious impacts on people and communities. However, significant progress has been made by some producers in recent years and those problematic industries make up less than 16% of global aquaculture. With both production methods and species being incredibly diverse, aquaculture is not just one thing. As with most forms of food production, there is a spectrum from good to bad, and the key is to differentiate those that are doing it better. Still have questions about aquaculture? Read “Why You Should Give Farmed Fish a New Look” by chef Barton Seaver, a seafood evangelist and founding member of the Coalition for Sustainable Aquaculture. * An Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is a concept adopted at the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (1982), whereby a coastal State assumes jurisdiction over the exploration and exploitation of marine resources in its adjacent section of the continental shelf, taken to be a band extending 200 miles from the shore. The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) comprises an area which extends either from the coast, or in federal systems from the seaward boundaries of the constituent states (3 to 12 nautical miles, in most cases) to 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) off the coast. Within this area, nations claim and exercise sovereign rights and exclusive fishery management authority over all fish and all Continental Shelf fishery resources. (Review of Fisheries in OECD Countries: Glossary, February 1998). -- Postelsia is a team of sustainable seafood experts who provide guidance to participants in our Smart Catch program. Learn more at


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