The US aquaculture industry is on life support

We’ve been writing quite a bit lately about the fledgling land-based salmon farming sector in the United States, but before we rush into predictions about the coming of a golden new age in US aquaculture, let’s take a real assessment of where things are right now with aquaculture industry we currently have.

Spoiler alert: Things aren't good.

US aquaculture production has been on a flat to decreasing trend since the early 2000s. There are spurts of growth in various species sectors, but nothing substantial. And the heavy lifter, catfish, has been in steep decline for more than a decade.

In 2008, for example, US catfish farmers produced 233,564 metric tons of fish. By 2016, production was down by nearly 38 percent to 145,230 metric tons, according to the most recent data from NOAA Fisheries.

The other heavy lifter, crawfish, has fared better. Production has been up and down since 2008, but in general has been climbing, particularly since 2014. In 2016, US crawfish farmers produced 67,593 metric tons of product, up nearly 27 percent from 2008’s production of 53,285 metric tons.

Combined, US crawfish and catfish farming account for 86 percent of all of the freshwater aquaculture production in the United States, and 74 percent of all aquaculture production – marine and freshwater combined – in America.

Beyond those two workhorse species, however, you don’t have much. Freshwater trout farming has been slowly increasing since 2013 and now stands at around 20,000 metric tons. There is some salmon farming, of course, but production here has been largely flat for a decade at around 18,000 metric tons. That number is likely to decline further in the coming years now that Cooke Aquaculture's salmon farms in Washington state are being phased out and terminated.

Since 1996, US aquaculture production has basically been flat to decreasing. Let's be honest, when compared to other seafood superpower nations, the US has virtually no aquaculture industry at all. Globally, aquaculture production represents around 50 percent of all seafood produced for human consumption -- but not in the United States. Not even close.

Ultimately, it comes down to investment, and regulatory framework. And either not enough is being invested in aquaculture, those investments are not yielding results or interested backers can't get through the red tape.

But if you believe the hype and follow the money as it is flowing right now -- land-based aquaculture is the potential savior of America's impotent fish farming sector. Investment is pouring into projects in Maine, Miami and along the West Coast, but the yield so far has been teeny tiny. For good reason, of course, the land-based farming sector in the States is at its very beginnings.

But am I the only one worried about how much we are banking on the success of this technology-heavy industry to succeed? I am certainly cheering for its success, in part because I don't see any promise in any of our current aquaculture growth strategies.

We are at one of those pivotal points in history. Is this the beginning of the golden age of aquaculture in the United States, or the latest chapter in the story of a withering industry?