Research Spotlight: Mariculture in Australia

As the global population grows and people (on average) become wealthier, there is a greater demand for animal-based foods. However, expanding food production from terrestrial agriculture and wild fisheries to meet this rising demand faces resource limitations, such as limited freshwater supplies, and negative environmental impacts including biodiversity loss, deforestation, and increased greenhouse gas emissions. The farming of seafood, known as ‘aquaculture’, has the capacity to contribute substantially to our global food supply, and marine aquaculture (seafood farming in the ocean, also known as mariculture), in particular, can take advantage of vast expanses of suitable ocean space. However, mariculture is not without its own resource limitations and environmental impacts. Additionally, mariculture must also grapple with negative public sentiments, which have hindered industry development in some regions.

In order to contribute to the global food supply in a substantive and sustainable way, mariculture will need to explore new methods of production that circumvent resource limitations, minimize environmental degradation, and overcome adverse public opinions toward the industry. However, leveraging innovative production methods will likely depend on the existing policies and legislation that govern mariculture operations in a given state or country.

In collaboration with The Nature Conservancy in Australia and with funding from the National Science Foundation, my research evaluates the policy landscape for novel methods of mariculture. Specifically, I am assessing the suitability of Australia’s existing policy and legislative frameworks to enable seafloor ranching, an innovative and promising culture method that entails the release of invertebrate species, like oysters and abalone. These invertebrates are released into an unenclosed marine environment for a given period of time, after which they are harvested. Seafloor ranching can contribute ecosystem service benefits including habitat for fish and other marine species, carbon sequestration, and improved water quality from farming filter feeders, such as oysters and abalone.

Australia provides a useful context for evaluating the capacity for existing mariculture policy to support seafloor ranching and other novel mariculture methods, as the country’s mariculture operations are administered largely at the state level allowing for multiple comparisons under the same national system of governance. To date, I have identified key requirements for operationalizing seafloor ranching activities and have reviewed policy and legislative documents relevant to mariculture from each of Australia’s six states and the Northern Territory. Currently, I am evaluating the suitability of existing policy and legislation to not only permit seafloor ranching operations but also to maximize the potential benefits and minimize the potential impacts of this novel form of mariculture production. I have found that while most states have sufficient guidance to authorize seafloor ranching within their waters, there is a general lack of policy attention given to the distinct operating considerations for seafloor ranching. I identify inclusive leasing opportunities, strategic guidelines for establishing ranching infrastructure, and management plans focused on monitoring the impacts of ranching and maintaining farming structures as integral additions to existing mariculture policy.

While focused on Australia, this work provides an important case study for broader considerations of inclusive policy for novel mariculture methods that can provide sustainable and diverse opportunities to expand seafood farming and contribute to global food security.

Geography grad student among FSU award recipients | College of Social  Sciences & Public Policy

Elizabeth Ruff is a PhD Candidate at the FSU Department of Geography. Her research explores what factors influence where marine aquaculture (the farming of seafood in ocean environments) develops and how policies and management impact industry sustainability. You can learn more about Elizabeth here.

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