As fishermen, we sometimes forget how expensive seafood is compared to other types of protein. Have you looked at retail prices lately? On Saturday, I was in Publix and looked at the seafood case. They had wild-caught Florida red grouper (fresh, never frozen) for the low, low price of $28.99 a pound. That’s $1.81 per ounce. Kinda makes you want to be sure to get every bit off those carcasses, doesn’t it?
Other options are even more expensive: Swordfish was $30.45 a pound, and you could choose mahi or halibut for $39.59 (almost $2.50 and ounce!). Want wild fish at bargain prices? OK: Dover sole was $9.99, coho salmon was $12.99, and Icelandic cod was $15.99.
The freezer section had more options, sold by the 12-ounce bag: Tuna steaks, $6.99; swordfish steaks, $7.99; snapper fillets, $13.99; grouper fillets, $13.99; Chilean seabass, $26.99. If you really want to lose weight, go on a seafood diet. It’s either get skinny or go broke.
Now, to be fair, there are some more budget-friendly choices. But you have to go one of two routes: Pick species that are not as well-liked, such as Pacific whiting, or go to aquacultured fish: Farmed swai (a Vietnamese catfish), $5.99/pound. Farmed tilapia from South America, $6.66/pound frozen or $7.99/pound fresh. Catfish raised in Mississippi, $7.99/pound. Whole rainbow trout from Colombia (the only one that actually tempted me), $7.99/pound.
Now that’s still expensive when you put it up against bone-in chicken breast ($1.99/pound) or even lean ground beef ($4.49/pound). But it does fall more in line with pork tenderloin or sirloin steak.
Wild-caught fish is always going to be expensive. It’s costly to go out to sea and catch it, and in today’s world demand is constantly on the rise but the supply just keeps shrinking. For most consumers, this is already a “splurge” purchase, and prices are predicted to continue to outpace inflation by a significant margin.
Well, I guess the middle class can always rely on farmed fish. But did you notice where those farmed fish are from? Almost all of it is imported. If you’re walking up to this particular seafood counter and aren’t a fan of catfish, you’re out of luck for American-raised aquaculture products. That’s a real shame.
All of this explains why I was happy to get a press release from a group called Stronger America Through Seafood. Here’s the first paragraph:
On Sept. 24, Senators Roger Wicker (R-MS), Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) introduced bipartisan legislation, the Advancing the Quality and Understanding of American Aquaculture (AQUAA) Act (S. 4723) in the U.S. Senate. The bipartisan AQUAA Act, which has companion legislation in the U.S. House, would support development of an offshore aquaculture industry in the U.S. to increase the production of sustainable seafood and establish new economic opportunities in federal waters.
It’s about time. Back in the early 1990s, when I was in high school and considering a career in marine biology, aquaculture was going to be the next big thing. A guidance counselor told me that I might be dreaming of being Jacques Cousteau, but the real career opportunities would be in figuring out how to efficiently raise fish for the food market.
She was right, except for one thing: To take advantage of those developing opportunities, I probably would have had to leave the country. American aquaculture sputtered and stalled in a mire of environmental regulation, while China, India and Vietnam proceeded on a huge scale. In 2017, China alone produced 140 billion pounds of farmed seafood. The U.S.? A pitiful 626 million pounds. For every pound of seafood farmed here, China raises more than 220 pounds.
We’re very far behind — but we don’t have to stay there. The AQUAA Act would provide a framework for how aquaculture operations would be permitted to work in waters of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (on Florida’s Gulf coast, that’s waters from 9 to 200 miles out, except where that would run into Cuban waters so we split the difference).
The act would require regulators to consider things like impacts from escaped farm stock and potential environmental problems to set up specific “aquaculture opportunity areas” — places where it would make sense to operate facilities of this type. With federal government support of these endeavors, it will finally be realistic for the large-scale food production companies to invest in open-water fish farming in the U.S.
Now, I know there’s going to be opposition. A lot of people were up in arms about the Velella Epsilon pilot project by Kampachi Farms, a small-scale proof of concept facility planned 45 miles off Sarasota (if you missed that one, see https://bit.ly/3cBbaGA).
Actually, that’s been one of the drivers of the AQUAA Act. A lawsuit filed by environmental groups over the project led to a judge ruling in August that NOAA doesn’t have the authority to regulate aquaculture in federal waters, which leaves nobody in the charge (the EPA, maybe, but that makes no sense). This bill would clearly define that fish farms are NOAA’s purview.
Not everybody is going to be happy. Commercial fishing interests will say it competes with their industry. Yes — in the same way that Five Guys competes with Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Both sell beef, but both sell very different products.
Enviros will complain about pollution. Could be a problem — but I’ll bet that U.S. regulations will result in a lot less polluting than what is currently happening in the waters of other nations to provide American consumers with farmed seafood. And by the way, if I really believed that offshore aquaculture was going to be as dirty as some folks claim, I’d be against it too.
What I see is a way for our country to be more self-sufficient and provide people who eat (that’s pretty much all of us) with reasonably priced alternatives to imported seafood. And that’s why I’ll say it again: It’s about time.
Contact Capt. Josh Olive at 941-276-9657 or Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com.