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A considered perspective on aquaculture in the US


May 1, 2014
By David Scarratt

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Gary Jensen retired from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in January 2014. He had served as one of the national program leaders for the USDA aquaculture program for over 23 years and had also been the Chair of the interagency body commonly called the Joint Subcommittee on Aquaculture (JSA) since 2010. He was interviewed for Aquaculture North America by contributor John Nickum.

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When Gary Jensen arrived in Washington, DC in 1990, the “aquaculture scene” was quite different from what it is today. Over the 20 plus years since Gary accepted a position in the USDA’s Aquaculture Program, he has been one of the rocks, the anchor for all things aquaculture in the Washington, DC federal offices that deal with aquaculture.

Initially, the role of executive secretary for the Joint Subcommittee for Aquaculture (JSA) was just one of the “other duties as assigned” in Gary’s position. His basic duties initially focused on extension and over time expanded into the research program in NIFA, but his duties late expanded when the administration selected him to chair the JSA under the Executive Branch of government following the tenure of Meryl Broussard.

I first met Gary when we were both working at universities, so our acquaintance dates back more than 25 years, before we worked together in Washington, DC. This long personal relationship made it reasonable and comfortable to conduct an interview via the Internet. I provided Gary with a set of questions and he provided detailed responses.

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Nickum: Is American aquaculture a stronger player, or a weaker player in world aquaculture than it was 20 years ago? Why?

Jensen: Considering American aquaculture in a global context, the production output and value have declined. The US is now a weaker player and lower ranked country than it was in 1990. In the early 1980s the US was a top ranked country in production led by steady growth of channel catfish and several other species of economic importance (trout and crawfish). With the increasing economic value and global demand for farmed-seafood, many countries with ideal climates and essential natural resources developed incentives for investment and strengthened policies and public support services.

In past decades few countries had aquaculture-specific education and training programs and most developing countries had limited access to aquaculture business know-how. Today more countries have top-notch educational programs and students are trained worldwide to create core competencies and critical support for local expansion and overcoming barriers for growth.

While numerous US scientists and programs remain global leaders on technical issues, the overall position of US aquaculture has declined.

Nickum: What major changes have occurred in US aquaculture since 1990? Which ones were improvements and which ones were regressions?

Jensen: There have been numerous changes since 1990 that have influenced the pace and direction of domestic growth or in some cases signaled a decrease. Clearly the globalization of seafood marketing and commerce, as evidenced by the US importing seafood from more than 125 different countries, has put downward pressure on prices.

Channel catfish has been our leading commodity, but lower priced substitute imports and high feed prices have driven many farmers out of business. When prices paid to the farmers dropped below production costs, it was an easy decision to switch to row crops that were experiencing record high prices.

As the number two seafood-consuming nation, US companies and farms are challenged to provide both large volume and competitive price to their buyers. Small independent farms have major problems meeting these demands. This problem has been true for newly emerging species, such as tilapia. Not that many years ago tilapia was unknown to most US consumers. Today this fish is found in most super markets and many white-table cloth restaurants. Never-the-less, US tilapia farmers can only compete for high value live fish sales. They are unable to fend off low cost fillets from foreign competitors as mass-market suppliers.

Research programs in universities and in federal research centers have changed greatly over the last 25 years. Numerous US universities that had strong aquaculture programs in the 1980s and 1990s have retreated and redirected resources and faculty to other agriculture-related areas as industry growth and influence fell short of expectations and/or administration interests changed.

I have to acknowledge some bias, but the USDA-funded Regional Aquaculture Centers that began operations in 1986, represent a rare success story for research and extension programs. The approach of allocating limited federal funds with direct farmer input for problem-focused multi-state research and extension teams has worked. No other program has involved so many farmers since its inception. This success notwithstanding, the program has been practically level funded since its inception with adverse impacts from declining inflation adjusted dollars.

Nickum: What do you consider to be the major accomplishments of the Joint Subcommittee for Aquaculture during the 20 years plus that you were a member and later leader?

Jensen: At a general level, the current Interagency Working Group on Aquaculture (IWG-A), former Joint Subcommittee on Aquaculture (JSA), is a policy-focused entity; however, it is a very unique federal interagency coordinating body. It is authorized by statute under the auspices of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Executive Office of the President. There is no other agricultural commodity that has this forum in the Executive Branch of government.

A long-lasting accomplishment of the JSA is the creation of a ‘federal’ aquaculture-focused community of 12 core agencies with programs, authorities and interests concerning regulatory and policy, science and technology, education and outreach concerns and more.

Specific examples of initiatives coming from the IWG-A include: endorsement by the National Ocean Council as the body to address all aquaculture-specific milestones in the National Ocean Policy’s Implementation Plan. This led to support by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government for improved permitting processes for shellfish aquaculture and new permitting for commercial aquaculture in offshore federal waters through a new Aquaculture Regulatory Task Force chartered under the National Science and Technology Council. The former Shrimp Virus Task Force and Working Group on Aquaculture Drugs, Biologics and Pesticides are additional coordination efforts that were initiated by the JSA (IWG-A).

An Aquaculture Effluents Task Force was created in 2000 and assisted EPA develop effluent guidelines and standards based on Best Management Practices. In 2014, the JSA (IWG-A) will launch a new home page to better inform the public on activities that will be hosted by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and release a new Resource Guide for Federal Aquaculture Programs and Services to assist people find information of interest among the multitude of agencies and programs.

Nickum: What would you have liked JSA to have accomplished that did not get done?

Jensen: A major action that remains unfinished is the attempt to update the National Aquaculture Development Plan. Much has changed since the first was released 30 years ago. In the late 1990s regional meetings were held to obtain ‘stakeholder’ input from major private sector aquaculture associations and the public. A Draft Plan was developed and reviewed by the Office of General Counsel.

However, because the Plan emphasized needed regulatory actions, it was determined to be ‘significant rulemaking.’ This ruling triggered Congressional oversight. Subsequent agency responses aligning programs and commitment to specific actions were inadequate. This was a disappointment after so much visibility and publicity. In addition there was limited explanation on the reasons behind the failure to complete the Plan.

The high turnover rate of staff and upper management in many agencies is another problem. Decisions on critical issues are slowed and priorities change with the result that interagency work on aquaculture can be easily stalled. Sincere support by top level management is needed for substantial progress to occur.

Nickum: The other agencies (other than USDA) represented in the JSA appear to have changed the level and nature of their support for aquaculture over the last 20 years. Which agencies have increased their support and which have decreased their support? How has this affected American aquaculture development?

Jensen: The priorities of top level managers, combined with the interests and capabilities of the staff people they hire, influence the actions of each agency. The Office of the Secretary in the Department of Agriculture has been especially engaged over the past several years. This level of support has helped move several policy-related matters forward and stimulated interest in aquaculture among USDA agencies as well as new collaborations with other federal agencies. USDA and NOAA senior management have met together with shellfish industry leaders for a unified approach to address critical issues.

Some agencies that have increased support for aquaculture include: NOAA Fisheries, specifically the Office of Aquaculture and its regional aquaculture coordinators; US Army Corps of Engineers with new nationwide permit for shellfish aquaculture; FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine with support for new animal drug approvals and investigational new animal drug applications and increased staff; USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service with new authorization for farm-raised aquaculture species and agency leadership to implement a national aquatic animal health plan; Department of State for engaging other agencies in international forums and official government positions; USDA Farm Service Agency for including aquaculture in risk management and disaster assistance programs; USDA Agricultural Research Service for increasing the number of federal scientists and research-support facilities; USDA Natural Resources and Conservation Service for extending programs to aquaculture; USDA Agricultural Marketing Service for current efforts to develop national organic standards for aquaculture products; NOAA National Sea Grant Office for aquaculture-specific competitive programs to strengthen outreach programs; NOAA Fisheries for bringing back the previously defunded S-K Competitive Program; National Science Foundation for increased interest in aquaculture and 2013 webinar on funding opportunities; USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service for conducting 2013 National Census of Aquaculture; and Smithsonian Institute as new collaborator.

The following agencies have limited, and even reduced support for aquaculture for various reasons: USDA Economic Research Service cancelled the Aquaculture Situation and Outlook Report because of staff reductions and dilution with expanded responsibilities; US Geological Survey reduced resources for intramural research supporting new animal drug approvals; US Fish and Wildlife Service reduced resources, services, commitment, and support for commercial aquaculture interests and was often unwilling to engage in informal interagency dialogue when preparing rules and policies.

Nickum: What are your personal plans for the future? Will you maintain a presence in aquaculture?

Jensen: I am in the second year of a three year master gardener program through Virginia Cooperative Extension and do plant clinics at farmer markets in our area. I also joined the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and local chapter of the Isaac Walton League for shooting sports. I am taking courses though the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at George Mason University. I plan to do more canoeing, fishing, camping, hiking and try sailing. My wife and I are planning to do the French Camino in northern Spain in the fall hiking over 500 miles.

I am working on two papers to publish and serve on a PhD student committee. I am a member of the Promotion and Membership Committee of the United States Aquaculture Society and am willing to serve on peer review panels and assist industry organizations and interests as requested. I would personally like to see the formation of an Aquaculture Caucus in Congress and that the newly formed Coalition for United States Seafood Production will expand its membership and effectiveness as a united voice to advance aquaculture development in the nation.

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 If readers wish to contact Gary Jensen he can be reached by email at: gljensen7@gmail.com


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