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March 18, 2015  |  Written by Lauren D. Bernadett

Symposium on Aquaculture Law Highlights Regulatory Framework in California

On March 13, 2015, the California Aquaculture Law Symposium was held at the UCLA School of Law.  Funded by the National Sea Grant Law Center, the symposium brought together speakers and interested persons from industry, academia, research centers, non-profits, and regulatory agencies.  The symposium was premised on the idea that although aquaculture has gained increasing attention from local and healthy food groups, environmental groups, and scientists for its significant potential as a domestic source of seafood, the legal field has paid little attention to aquaculture even though regulatory confusion and challenges are often cited as a primary barrier to domestic aquaculture growth.  The symposium’s primary purpose was to begin broad discussions with respect to aquaculture law and the industry’s challenges.

The day began with an overview of aquaculture globally and in California.  Speakers from California Sea Grant, Aquarium of the Pacific, a seafood restaurant and distribution company, and an aquaculture farm detailed the importance of aquaculture in their profession, the economy, and the California seafood culture.  This discussion set the stage for the legal issues that would be discussed throughout the day.

The second panel discussed timeframes associated with a long-awaited potential final rule from the National Organic Standards Board so that aquaculture can be USDA-certified organic.  As part of this discussion, issues regarding production standards required for certain certification and rating programs, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program, were addressed.  Further, representatives from the environmental organization Heal the Bay highlighted particular concerns that they and others have about aquaculture’s interaction with the environment.

Next, regulators from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; the California Department of Fish and Wildlife; and the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation, and Conservation District (District) addressed federal, state, and local support for aquaculture in California.  A Commissioner from Humboldt Bay’s Harbor District discussed progress in pre-permitting multiple aquaculture farms in the Humboldt Bay under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which is important because CEQA often requires studies that are time-consuming and expensive for a start-up aquaculture farmer.  By pre-permitting farms, the District can then lease the permitted plots to farmers.  This allows farmers to deal with only one agency and begin farming quickly and efficiently as opposed to enduring years of permitting before being able to start farming.  This unique approach to permitting is being watched by other localities and, if successful, may be a template that can be copied elsewhere in the state and the country to simplify permitting for prospective farmers.

Ending the day was a panel of aquaculture business founders, farmers, and representatives from early and current farms.  These seasoned veterans discussed some of their most challenging experiences with regulations, the result being that some of them have opted to farm in Mexico instead of California because of Mexico’s less-cumbersome permitting requirements.  Conversely, they also discussed how they work effectively with regulators in California, and identified projects that are currently underway.  They emphasized that for current projects, the question is not how to farm, but whether the regulations will realistically allow them to farm in California.  For example, many are watching the ongoing regulatory discussions with respect to Catalina Sea Ranch, the first permitted offshore commercial-scale farm in federal waters, which would be located off the shore of Long Beach.  The result will likely impact the regulatory process for prospective farms in California and federal waters.

Overall, the symposium was an excellent opportunity for people with varying interests in aquaculture to share perspectives.  The discussions highlighted challenges with the current regulatory framework for aquaculture, but they also highlighted opportunities and ideas for productively working through those challenges.  It is hopeful that through the symposium, and an ongoing dialogue between the industry, governmental entities, and environmental organizations, aquaculture can continue to thrive and grow in California.

For more information, please contact Lauren D. Bernadett at lbernadett@somachlaw.com.

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