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Net Loss: Aquaculture Drags Down Fish, Jobs

In June 2005, the National Offshore Aquaculture Act swept into Congress on a wave of euphoric promises from the Bush Administration about job creation and economic revitalization of rural areas.

“Today’s  action will create jobs and revenues for coastal communities and U.S. businesses by allowing for the expansion of an underutilized industry,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez announced.1

“We can create new jobs. This is going to generate more money for coastal communities and the economy of the United States,” claimed Susan Buchanan of the National Marine Fisheries Service.2

However, far from being a boon to remote, struggling regions, only about 15 percent of the jobs that proponents have claimed are created by aquaculture actually involve fish farming.3 Instead, most jobs are in transportation or processing plants in urban areas.

What is OOA?

Open-ocean aquaculture (OOA), or offshore aquaculture, is an intensive method of fish farming , primarily for carnivorous finfish in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), from 3 to 200 miles offshore. It requires large inputs of capital to produce fish with high market value. Dense concentrations of carnivorous finfish , such as cobia, cod, halibut, tuna and red snapper , are raised in giant submerged nets or cages, which can be anchored to oil rigs.

Corporate Domination

The aquaculture industry is controlled by three powerful multinational corporations headquartered in Norway: Pan Fish, Fjord Seafoods, and Cermaq. Mergers are frequent, further concentrating power and profits in fewer and fewer hands. In March 2006, Pan Fish merged with the worlds largest aquaculture company, Marine Harvest, to form ‚the world‚ undisputed leader in the fish farming business.” 4 In July 2005, a subsidiary of Cermaq bought the fish farms of the only large Canadian aquaculture company, George Weston, Ltd.5

Aquaculture corporations are vertically integrated, controlling every step of the process , from feed production, to fish farming, to processing and distribution. Their farms are located across the globe, where they have built legacies of environmental destruction.

Now it appears that U.S. federal waters are the next target for exploitation. These large aquaculture producers , highly subsidized by governments around the world in the name of research and technological progress , can produce massive quantities of fish at relatively low costs. So intense is the competition in the aquaculture industry, and so high are the start-up costs, that new firms are virtually excluded from entry. Smaller fish farms are not able to produce fish at such low cost, and are driven out of business.

‚[Pan Fish‚ acquisition of Marine Harvest] is a terrifying prospect for the Scottish industry,” an industry insider said. ‚This will give the one company control of most of the mainland and the Western Isles. There are now just over 20 small independent companies left.”6 Also, although there were 50 aquaculture companies in British Columbia in 1989, by 2003 only 12 remained. With headquarters far from fish farms, these corporations funnel most of their profits away from local communities; they have little or no interest in making long-tern investments in communities or protecting ecosystems.

No Replacement for Fishing

The claims of job-production made by aquaculture proponents generally rely on the ‚multiplier effect” to amplify their statistics. Under this assumption, each farm job created generates six additional jobs in other parts of the industry, such as processing or transport.7 Scotland, for example, estimated that the salmon farming industry created 8,600 full-time jobs by 2004.8 However, without the multiplier effect, this number actually may be closer to 1,230 jobs. The bulk of new jobs are therefore not in remote coastal areas, as claimed, but in more accessible and urban areas where food processing takes place.9

More Fish, Fewer Jobs

As aquaculture has become increasingly efficient in the past 20 years, output has increased dramatically, while employment in the industry has remained stagnant or even declined. In British Columbia, for example, production of salmon has tripled without creating any additional jobs. And In Sweden and Scotland, salmon production has increased while employment has actually decreased. An equally sad story is unfolding in Norway, where the industry greatly expanded from 1985 to 2000, but employment decreased by 20%.10

“Numbers of jobs in salmon farming in remote areas have already dropped like a stone, with now a third of the workforce on farm sites and loch systems compared with eight years ago.” Dr Michael Foxley, of Scotland explained. ‚There will be a tendency to even larger salmon farm production units with smaller crews and threats of disease outbreaks.”11

What Kind of Future?

Contrary to the enthusiastic claims of policymakers and industry representatives, aquaculture is not the answer to the problems of rural coastal unemployment. Jobs created by aquaculture are largely urban-based and vulnerable to layoffs as the highly mechanized industry becomes more efficient. At the same time, environmental destruction wrought by aquaculture threatens the livelihoods of fishing communities, which depend on clean oceans and healthy fisheries for survival. Offshore aquaculture promotes corporate profits over social equity, clean seas and healthy fish.

Rather than push coastal residents into insecure urban processing jobs, policymakers should invest in rebuilding depleted fish populations and ensuring healthy fisheries are managed a manner that will enable them to support vibrant communities for generations to come.


1 U.S. National Offshore Aquaculture Bill Sent to Congress,” Fish Farmer, June 13, 2005. McClure, Robert. ‚Bush seeks expansion of offshore fish farms,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 8, 2005.
2 Marine Aquaculture (FISH 6215).” AquaNIC: Aquaculture Network Information Center.
3 Naylor, Rosamond L. et al. ‚A Global Industry: Salmon Aquaculture in the Pacific Northwest.” Environment. Vol. 45, No. 8., October 2003
4 Pan Fish acquired Marine Harvest to form the world‚ largest fish farming company.” Pan Fish Press Release. 6 March 2006. www.panfish.com
5 Weston Sells off salmon farm operations: Heritage Salmon sold to Canadian subsidiary of Norwegian company,” Times Colonist, 20 July 2005.
6 Ross, John. ‚Fish-farm jobs fear after ¬£800m deal,” The Scotsman. 7 March 2006.
7 AquaNIC, op. cit.
8 Henderson, Bob and MacBean, Colin. ‚Scottish Economic Report: March 2004.” Scottish Executive.
9 “Aquaculture.” Caithness & Sutherland Enterprise. <www.hie.co.uk/case/aquaculture.html>
10 Marshall, Dale. ‚Fishy Business: The Economics of Salmon Farming in BC.” Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives. July 2003..
11 Ross, John. ‚Fish-farm jobs fear after ¬£800m deal,” The Scotsman. 7 March 2006.