Framework for ESA Section 7 Evaluation of Aquaculture Projects in the Greater Atlantic Region

  • Chiharu Mori
  • Meagan Riley
Keywords: Endangered Species Act, Consultation, Aquaculture, Marine Species, Interactions


The aquaculture industry is one of the fastest growing food-producing sectors worldwide. This upward trend in commercial marine aquaculture is expected to continue to increase locally in the Greater Atlantic Region (GAR) with more aquaculture operations being proposed for development in offshore marine habitat. Rapid growth in this industry has resulted in an increase in requests for interagency Section 7 consultation with NOAA Fisheries required under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Many variables and novel engineering factors related to aquaculture activities and gear create challenges in accurately assessing the associated risks and effects to ESA-listed species, particularly in offshore areas beyond three nautical miles from shore. This report documents the recent history of ESA Section 7 consultations on aquaculture activities throughout the GAR. The vast majority of the aquaculture projects we have recently consulted on between 2014 and January 2019, 98% (293/300), are close to shore in shallow depths (less than 10m).  Most of the projects (183/300) are shell-on-bottom culturing techniques with minimal gear in the water. However, new and diverse aquaculture methods with unique engineering systems that include floating and/or bottom cages and arrays with vertical and horizontal lines in the water column are being proposed, frequently in open ocean areas beyond three nautical miles from shore. This report describes the associated stressors and risks that are typically analyzed during ESA Section 7 consultation with these different facility designs (e.g. entanglement, habitat modification, vessel interaction, escapement) and how these analyses may be similar or not to those for other activities in the GAR. Finally, the report includes an analytical ESA Section 7 consultation framework for use by ESA Section 7 biologists to guide Section 7 consultation. The framework is an attempt to ensure biologists adequately protect listed species by consistently and comprehensively analyzing the risks and stressors of individual aquaculture projects, while at the same time streamlining and reducing the time taken during the consultation process. The proposed framework has numerous limitations and is a guide that is not intended to replace careful consideration of each unique situation.  However, with more research, such a standardized approach will help improve the efficiency of the ESA Section 7 process and will benefit permitting and authorizing of future aquaculture operations, while protecting listed species and contributing to the expected successful and sustainable growth of the aquaculture industry in the GAR.