Aquaculture North America

Farming the Commons

June 21, 2016
By John Nickum

An epic environmental article, “The Tragedy of the Commons” is burned into my memory and the memory of everyone who was an environmental activist on the first Earth Day in 1970.  An article published by Garrett Hardin in 1968 had renewed interest in a concept originally proposed by William Forster Lloyd in 1833.  The “tragedy of the commons” is an economic theory about situations within a shared resource system where individual users acting independently according to their own self-interest, behave contrary to the common good of all users, thereby depleting that resource through their self-interest actions.  In this context, commons is taken to mean any shared and unregulated resource such as the atmosphere, oceans, rivers, fish stocks, or even something as mundane as an office refrigerator. 

Ironically, individuals and interest groups who rank among the worst polluters and abusive exploiters of common resources use the “tragedy of the commons” in their efforts to oppose marine aquaculture.  Exploiters of marine resources, such as, oil wells, mining, shipping, and capture fisheries, are frequently joined in opposition to aquaculture by environmental activists who accuse aquaculture activities of pollution and consider it detrimental to “natural” resource production.   I, and most readers of this publication, consider marine aquaculture to be a non-consumptive use of the marine environment, and an appropriate use of the commons.  Aquaculture provides sustained, predictable production and takes pressure off wild stocks.  Nevertheless, marine aquaculture ventures in North America continue to encounter strong, sometimes irrational, opposition to any operation that is sited in “the commons.”  It seems reasonable to ask: what will it take for American aquaculture, especially marine aquaculture, to fulfill the optimistic vision spelled out in the National Aquaculture Act of 1980?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has taken a step toward those 1980 goals with its recently released Marine Aquaculture Strategic Plan (a five-year plan, 2016 – 2020).  The broad, general goal of the Plan is to address the issues facing marine aquaculture and foster its sustainable development.  The Plan sets a high bar for measuring its accomplishments:  “Expand sustainable US marine aquaculture production by volume by at least 50 percent by the year 2020.”  NOAA’s previous Aquaculture Plan, a 10-year plan, did not accomplish this level of growth over 10 years, with annual growth averaging just 5 percent since 2010.  The new Plan presents four main goals: 1) regulatory efficiency, 2) science tools for sustainable management, 3) technology development and transfer, and 4) an informed public. Cross-cutting strategies of the plan include strengthening partnerships, improving external communications, building infrastructure to support marine aquaculture, and sound program management.

The second and third goals are attainable.  Developing science-based tools for sustainable management, and technology development and transfer, are well within the capabilities of NOAA scientists and managers.  Congress must provide sufficient funds for these efforts, but the actual work will occur in the laboratories, field stations, and offices of NOAA.  Given adequate resources, NOAA personnel will ”get the job done.”  The first goal, regulatory efficiency, and the fourth goal, an informed public, are achievable in principle, but may be elusive in practice.  These goals bring us back to our discussion of “the commons” and the difficulties inherent to activities that take place in “the commons” and the public perceptions of such activities.


An informed public is highly desirable, but agencies must recognize the fact that an informed public may not support the agencies’ goals and objectives.  Bureaucrats tend to believe the public will agree with them and support them, if they can only “educate” the public.  This is not necessarily true, even when hard, scientifically valid, repeatable evidence and logical conclusions are the basis for the agency’s policies and regulations.  There is an old, tongue-in-cheek adage that states:  reasonable regulations are those that apply to the activities of other people.  The best that NOAA can achieve will be support from a majority of the public and efficient processing of paperwork related to the regulations.  When the commons is involved, there will be competing agendas.  I recall a meeting in Campbell River, BC, back in the early 1990s when a discussion developed comparing the public acceptance of catfish ponds, but fierce opposition to net pens for salmon.  The conclusion was that operating in the commons versus privately owned land was the most fundamental difference. 

Aquaculture in marine environments will always face another set of problems that has nothing addressed directly in the goals: the harsh, uncontrollable factors of operating in an open environment.  Weather events cannot be controlled, water quality cannot be controlled, and exposure to disease agents cannot be controlled.  Carefully planned selection of sites and advanced technology can reduce such problems, but cannot eliminate them.  Activists who have strong, negative personal beliefs about aquaculture tend to hang on to their beliefs, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that they are wrong.  After all, their beliefs can explain everything and justify anything, even when they have no basis in reality. 

NOAA must be commended for its efforts.  The US imports over 90 percent of its seafood, about half of which is from other nations where it is farmed.  While aquaculture globally has grown dramatically over the past 30 years, US production has remained low.  Expanding US aquaculture in federal waters complements wild harvest fisheries and supports efforts to maintain sustainable fisheries and resilient oceans; and it provides jobs.  Whether or not the public will be convinced of the benefits from marine aquaculture remains to be seen.  The “tragedy of the commons” takes different forms in the minds of various individuals; but, whatever form it takes,  the message remains vivid in their minds and farming the commons will probably remain controversial. 

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