The fisheries and aquaculture arm of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA Fisheries) on Thursday announced federal waters off southern California and in the Gulf of Mexico will be the country's first two regions to host Aquaculture Opportunity Areas.

The so-called Aquaculture Opportunity Areas, part of President Donald Trump's executive order on promoting american seafood competitiveness and economic growth, are geographic areas that have been evaluated for their potential for sustainable commercial aquaculture.

The selection of these regions is the first step designed to establish 10 Aquaculture Opportunity Areas nationwide by 2025.

The two regions were selected for future aquaculture opportunity area locations based on the already available spatial analysis data and current industry interest in developing sustainable aquaculture operations in the region, NOAA said.

“Naming these areas is a big step forward,” said Chris Oliver, assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries.

“The creation of Aquaculture Opportunity Areas will foster the US aquaculture industry as a needed complement to our wild capture fisheries. This type of proactive work creates opportunities for aquaculture farmers and maintains our commitment to environmental stewardship.”

The selected areas are expected to support multiple aquaculture farm sites of varying types, including finfish, shellfish and seaweed.

The Aquaculture Opportunity Areas could be identified in federal or state waters, or a combination of the two, NOAA Fisheries said. "The [executive order] does not require that AOAs be located in federal waters. If states express interest in AOAs in state waters, that will be taken into consideration. The first two AOAs are expected to be in federal waters," the agency said on its website.

To identify each area, NOAA will use a combination of scientific analysis and public engagement to highlight spaces that are environmentally, socially, and economically appropriate for commercial aquaculture, the agency said.

"While NOAA has selected the regions for these first Aquaculture Opportunity Areas, the exact locations will be identified based on best-available science, including data-driven siting analyses using hundreds of data layers of ocean conditions and uses,” said Nicole LeBoeuf, Acting Assistant Administrator for the National Ocean Service.

There is no predetermined size for an Aquaculture Opportunity Area. Each of the first two areas may accommodate approximately three to five commercial aquaculture operations, but this will vary depending on the specifics of the location.

The size and shape of operations in each area will be determined as part of the Aquaculture Opportunity Area identification process. During this process, NOAA will work with federal and state partners, tribes, and interested stakeholders to determine the appropriate size of each.

“Along with the advanced spatial analysis, public input is vital to this process,” said NOAA Office of Aquaculture Director Danielle Blacklock.

“In the coming months and years we plan to conduct outreach, requests for information, and listening sessions to allow our stakeholders to share their insights into the creation of these opportunity areas.”

Butting heads

There is debate over who will be managing US offshore aquaculture in the future, as the Trump administration aims to streamline permitting for offshore farms.

In August, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld a 2018 federal ruling that NOAA shouldn't be allowed to regulate offshore aquaculture under existing national fisheries laws.

The Fifth Circuit ruling is in stark contrast to the Trump Administration's executive order in May that largely details how offshore aquaculture projects can now be set up with NOAA as the lead agency.

It remains unclear, however, whether the ruling will impact the offshore aquaculture projects starting to take off in the United States.

Neil Sims, who is currently pioneering the first offshore demonstration fish farm in federal waters in the US Gulf of Mexico known as the Velella Epsilon, told IntraFish in August his project was not impacted by the ruling.

He noted the project has been proceeding lawfully under both the Fifth Circuit's and the 2018 lower court's federal ruling because his project is being managed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

"This ruling says NOAA has no regulatory authority over aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico. It doesn't mean you can't do aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico," he said.

The EPA has been holding hearings over permitting Velella Epsilon, and the project has attracted opposition since it was announced last year.