If enacted by Congress, this legislation will let commercial ventures operate fish farms between three and 200 miles off our coasts in federal ocean waters. This marine area covers an enormous space about 3.4 million nautical square miles, larger than the combined land area of the lower 48 states.
Raising fish and shellfish for food is similar to raising livestock on land and the need to do so has become a global reality. As other countries have continued to develop aquaculture industries, the United States has fallen behind. With an $8 billion seafood trade deficit, the United States relies on imported fish and shellfish to meet current market demand.
We import over 70 percent of our seafood and at least 40 percent of that is farm-raised. Projections show that within the next 20 years in this country alone we will need an additional 2 million metric tons of seafood a year to meet market demand. Where will this increased seafood production come from?
Aquaculture is the answer. Although the status of our wild fish stocks is improving, they will not meet our future needs. Federal health experts are advising Americans to eat at least two servings of seafood a week. Seafood is an excellent source of protein, is low in fat and sodium, and contains other minerals and vitamins that are important for good health.
Aquaculture in U.S. marine waters is a good idea for America. It can complement wild catches to meet the growing demand for seafood, generate jobs and revenues for depressed coastal communities, and help us secure and monitor the safety of our seafood supply.
Aquaculture can also be used in hatcheries to enhance stocks of wild fish and shellfish for the benefit of commercial and sport fishermen and for endangered species' restoration.
The administration's goal is to develop a sustainable marine-aquaculture program in the United States that balances the needs of fishermen, coastal residents and visitors, seafood consumers, the environment, and the aquaculture industry. The American public will be invited and encouraged to work with us to establish environmental requirements for these facilities to ensure that we develop a vibrant new industry of which we can all be proud.
I urge Americans to embrace offshore aquaculture, because seafood farming is here to stay. The question is whether or not America will lead or continue to follow. Let's not pass up this important economic and environmental opportunity.
Conrad C. Lautenbacher is administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.