Steering the States towards sustainable offshore aquaculture - B - AIM PICK SELECTS

Danielle Blacklock, who was recently appointed director of NOAA’s Office of Aquaculture, talks to The Fish Site about how to ensure the US develops a sustainable offshore aquaculture sector, what the country can learn from other nations and how the sector is coping with COVID-19.

What inspired you to join the aquaculture sector?

In one way or another I have been involved with the aquaculture sector for over a decade. I worked as a professional cook as a way to put myself through school and I was drawn by the idea of growing something – raising a product tide to table. Working in aquaculture allows me to support several things I am passionate about, including coastal economies, increasing domestic seafood and feeding our communities.

Has US marine aquaculture – and attitudes to it, both from the public and from the government – evolved much during your time at NOAA?

Yes, marine aquaculture and attitudes toward it continue to change as research, best-management practices and awareness shape the industry. It is no secret that the global human population is rising, but the global abundance of wild fish is not. NOAA Fisheries and its partners have made good progress in ending overfishing in the United States, but wild-fish harvests cannot meet current seafood demands. We are seeing a growing sense of urgency and optimism around aquaculture and its potential to sustainably meet this growing demand while also supplying economic opportunities.

What are your key responsibilities in your new role at NOAA?

As director of the Office of Aquaculture, I oversee the aquaculture component of NOAA’s sustainable seafood portfolio. Working with our staff and stakeholders, I am leading the development of a strategic vision to foster a strong marine-aquaculture industry in the United States. Key to these efforts are increasing permit efficiency, improving public perceptions and supporting research to address industry barriers.

Are there any particular species or production systems that you are hoping to encourage?

I am excited to see the wide array of production systems and species being explored by aquaculture producers. We are going to need seafood produced from a range of technologies: wild harvest, net pens, mussels on a line and recirculating facilities, sometimes in combination. The next decade will be interesting as new technologies continue to be tested at commercial scale, advancing our production potential and sustainability.

Can the US learn from the experience of other countries?

As part of an NOAA leadership programme I was able to join the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) aquaculture branch as a visiting scholar. During my six months at FAO I had two focus areas: first, to work on the development of Global Sustainable Aquaculture Guidelines, and second, exploring other nation’s marine-aquaculture governance systems and policies. Through this work I learned more about other nations’ approaches to industry management and I am now bringing back these new perspectives to the US.

Did you come across some projects or methods that you can apply to the US?

During my time at FAO it was clear that intentional and strategic use of ocean space is paramount. The concepts of appropriate siting and area- or basin-wide management are not new to the United States. However, it was fascinating to see how ingrained into the legal fabric the use of space is in other nations. Many of the top marine-aquaculture producing countries have a deliberate use of space outlined in their laws or regulations. In the past few years, NOAA’s NCCOS [National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science] team has dramatically increased our ability to understand ocean neighbourhoods and to engage in multi-sector planning. With their siting tools OceanReports and the AquaMapper, we can better explore area-wide management and increase intentional use of space here in the US. Stakeholders – including seafood farmers, commercial fishermen, coastal managers and regulators, and environmental organisations – can now minimise user conflicts and ensure sustainable aquaculture development. Using spatial analysis and the data sets contained in these tools, a user can query a sea of data and examine current area uses, vessel traffic and even sensitive habitats.

Is there anyone in the aquaculture sector that you’ve found particularly inspirational?

I find aquaculture farmers to be inspirational. In the US the public has a sentimental reaction when they think of the heartland and agricultural farming. They think of hard-working folks that battle the elements and long days to feed their neighbours. Aquaculture farmers are no different. They work at all hours in all conditions, with weathered hands flipping oyster cages, plucking fresh kelp from their lines and tending net pens. These aquaculture producers are also committed stewards of the environment, managing their farms with sustainability in mind. Their stewardship and the care that goes into keeping their crop as well as their businesses alive – that’s inspiring to me.

Have you encountered any gender-related obstacles to your own success in the sector?

This is a difficult question. I think that most women, including myself, have either witnessed or experienced some level of gender-related challenges professionally. There is, however, a strong cadre of women in ocean science and natural-resource management. I think the dynamic is different today than it was perhaps 30 years ago. This is in part because of agency commitments to equality, but also a lot of credit is due to the women that came before us, those who challenged the status quo. Today, at NOAA there is a strong culture of prevention and awareness. Our leaders are committed to a culture of safety and equality for all.

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