Government identifies aquaculture opportunities in federal waters off Malibu Coast

An underwater shot of a kelp forest in Malibu. The NOAA and coastal commission have been encouraging aquaculture in the area. Contributed photo.

For anyone thinking of starting an offshore farm to raise fish, shellfish, seaweed, or kelp near Malibu, now may be the time. A ‘Presidential Executive Order’ that passed in May 2020 calls for the expansion of sustainable and environmentally safe seafood production in the U.S. to ensure food security without unnecessary regulatory burdens.

In addition, technological innovations in the aquaculture field now make it possible to farm commercially in open ocean sites.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been developing science-based tools for all types of aquaculture, including the best places to site an aqua farm within reasonable range of the waterfront. Last November, it published an Atlas with maps that identifies very specific areas off the coast of Malibu in the Santa Monica Bay that would be suitable for an aquafarm (in addition to a number of sites off Santa Barbara).

Expressions of interest from businesses in pursuing operations on these sites have already been received by state and federal agencies.

In identifying the ideal sites for aquafarms, NOAA used sophisticated analyses with hundreds of variables, including military and transportation routes, oil and gas infrastructure, commercial and recreational fishing, and oceanography. The discrete areas they identified had to be between 500 and 2,000 acres; and be suitable for all types of aquaculture – finfish, macroalgae, shellfish, or combinations.

The two areas identified close to Malibu were 1,000 acres or smaller and five to six nautical miles from Marina del Rey harbor. The close proximity to subtropical waters and several submarine canyons gives the sites biodiversity and nutrient-rich waters. The sites also have mild waves, mild wind speeds, and low vessel traffic; and are biologically important for gray whales and deep-sea corals.

NOAA simulated the visual impacts of an aquaculture operation and found that there’s minimal impact to the seascape if the farm is five nautical miles or more from the shore.

And what’s it like trying to get an aquafarm operation approved?

A recent opinion piece in Cal Matters from the co-founder of Primary Ocean, a seaweed farm company, criticized the California Coastal Commission and other state agencies because his application for a “revolutionary” offshore giant kelp farm near San Pedro still wasn’t approved after two years. He also claimed that California was prohibiting new seaweed cultivation projects.

Jack Ainsworth, executive director of the California Coastal Commission, shot back, refuting many of those accusations and painting a much rosier picture; saying the typical application processing time is six months; and that the state is on board with the expansion of aquafarms.

“The truth is, there’s no regulatory prohibition on seaweed or shellfish aquaculture in California,” he wrote. “In fact, the Coastal Act was amended in 1982 to make aquaculture a “priority use,” and in the past several years, the Coastal Commission has approved permits for seven seaweed farms – making kelp the fastest growing aquaculture sector in California. In fact, over the past 10 years, the commission has approved and amended dozens of permits for aquaculture operations and, in nearly every case, unanimously through its consent calendar. For these approvals, the application cost has typically been less than $5,000.”

He did admit, however, that “The California Fish and Game Commission, which issues bottom leases for aquaculture projects in state waters, instituted a temporary hiatus on accepting aquaculture lease applications in order to establish priorities and build capacity for this budding industry. That hiatus was lifted nearly a year ago.”

Ainsworth claims the bureaucracy is improving. “The Ocean Protection Council recently convened a partnership of seven state agencies to develop and release a set of guiding principles for aquaculture in California and is hard at work on a statewide aquaculture plan to be released later this year. A major focus will be on increasing the efficiency of the regulatory system.”

The new Atlas from NOAA is also expected to support more effective permitting and planning processes for aqua farms, with the wealth of information it contains.  

Ainsworth noted that some aquaculture farms in the past proved to have problems with construction or the generation of plastic waste, which is why proposed projects can’t just be rubber-stamped. 

As far as climate change, NOAA writes that aquaculture industries are somewhat resilient because they can adapt by “adjusting species, cultivation practices, breeding approaches, and adaptive engineering.” 

Caption for image: 

The NOAA Atlas (cover image above) includes maps that identify specific areas off the coast of Malibu in the Santa Monica Bay that would be suitable for an aquafarm. Contributed photo