Wicker Looks to the Future of Mississippi Seafood

State Could Help Close Nation’s Seafood Trade Deficit

March 13, 2017

Go anywhere in our state and you can find fresh seafood. The catfish of the Delta and the oysters of the Gulf are a source of local pride and a delicious treat for visitors. Mississippi’s seafood industry is also a major economic driver, generating some $377 million and thousands of jobs in recent years. Our Gulf region and the entire nation benefit from Mississippi seafood.

Imports, however, remain a large part of the seafood market in the United States, leaving us with an annual seafood trade deficit of more than $14 billion. Closing this deficit by increasing seafood production here at home is a goal I share with new Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. As Secretary Ross said during his Senate confirmation hearing in January, “Given the enormity of our coastlines, given the enormity of our freshwater, I would like to try to figure out how we can become much more self-sufficient in fishing and perhaps even a net exporter of fishing.”

Second-Largest Aquaculture State

Mississippi is poised to be a key player in providing more homegrown seafood to U.S. markets, increasing overall food security with high-quality products. As the nation’s leading producer of farm-raised catfish, our state has a long history of success with freshwater aquaculture. In fact, the U.S. Census of Aquaculture has ranked Mississippi the second-largest aquaculture industry in the country. Opportunities are ripe to lead the way in marine aquaculture as well – a topic I recently discussed at the Consortium for Ocean Leadership’s policy forum in Washington.

Mississippi universities are members of this consortium and are already doing significant research to support the emerging field of marine aquaculture. The University of Southern Mississippi has a center devoted to marine aquaculture at Ocean Springs, and its cutting-edge research on oysters is set to flourish at a hatchery in Perkinston. USM was awarded a “RESTORE Act” grant to purchase the facility in Stone County.

A Rising Tide for Oyster Industry

Advances in oyster aquaculture in particular could have a major impact on the seafood industry and coastal communities in our state. Hurricane Katrina and the oil spill following Deepwater Horizon devastated oyster populations, with last year’s harvested oyster sacks at a fraction of what they were before Katrina. Mississippi’s Oyster Council, created by Governor Phil Bryant two years ago, has prioritized revitalizing depleted oyster populations and pursuing aquaculture operations. The council hopes to have annual harvested sacks up to one million by 2025.

Through strategic partnerships, the right policy initiatives, and local investments, I believe Mississippi can play a pivotal role in meeting the growing demand for safe, healthy seafood. I am currently exploring avenues to lay the proper groundwork at the federal level, such as streamlined permitting for marine aquaculture in the United States. Last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a rule to encourage marine aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Gulf is one of our state’s greatest resources, producing seafood that generates revenue for our fishermen, our merchants, our restaurants, and our coastal communities. Marine aquaculture offers a way to enhance this resource with far-reaching economic and ecological rewards.