Trout, oysters, abalone: California's new 'crops'

There's a new crop in California agriculture: fish.

Until now, California's young aquaculture, or fish-farming, industry has been an orphan of sorts - abandoned somewhere between wildlife and commercial and sports fisheries in the state's Department of Fish and Game, and hampered by a thicket of government regulations passed before the industry began getting under way in the 1970s.

But under legislation passed Aug. 31, aquaculture officially becomes a part of California's bountiful agriculture industry, making its farmers eligible for state subsidies and other forms of aid.

It comes at a time when new federal attention is being focused on boosting the rapidly growing industry, which has more than doubled its production nationwide since 1975 and which may double or triple it again before the end of the century, says Bille Hougart, aquaculture coordinator with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The industry - which at present accounts for a rather modest $15 million to $ 17 million harvest compared with the state's total annual agricultural worth of about $14 billion - will also enjoy a good deal of regulatory relief. Among the regulations eased or reformed are those involving access to coastal land, licensing, taxing, and disease control.

The new law makes California a national role model for aquaculturists seeking changes in laws in other states which will make it easier for them to grow crops of fish, plants, and crustaceans in salt and fresh water.

''We've got the most significant, by far, piece of legislation for aquaculture in the United States,'' boasts abalone farmer George Lockwood. As president of the World Mariculture Society and chairman of the board of the California Aquaculture Association, Mr. Lockwood joined industry and government representatives in drafting the new legislation.

Under revisions to the agricultural code made by the new legislation, aquaculture will now reap an equal share of all state agricultural aid programs. In addition, revisions to the fish and game code elevate the development of aquaculture to an equal footing with the Department of Fish and Game's other responsibilities of protecting wildlife and promoting commercial fishing.

Two other states - Mississippi and Hawaii - already are known as aquaculture supporters and promoters. Unlike those states, however, where government officials made aquaculture a priority, California's governmental bureaucracy has been criticized for being largely indifferent to the needs of aquaculturists. Fish-farming entrepreneurs had complained that complying with state regulations took much of their time away from developing their businesses and made it difficult to attract venture capital.

Thus, this state's recently passed legislation provides fish farmers with a model for change in other states where aquaculture may not have received much bureaucratic help. Already, requests for more information on California's efforts have come from private aquaculturists and some government officials in several states, including Florida, the Carolinas, Louisiana, Texas, New York, Oregon, and Washington, says Mr. Lockwood.

At the national level, aquaculture has drawn the attention of Vice-President George Bush's task force on regulatory reform. Fish farmers are working with members of that task force to ease regulations in eight areas, including, for example, Environmental Protection Agency discharge requirements which now treat aquaculture operations as sewage treatment plants.

In addition, explains Mr. Hougart of the USDA, the nation's first National Aquaculture Plan - called for under the nation's first piece of federal aquaculture legislation in 1980 - will be presented to Congress later this year. Although passage of the plan would be a significant step, he notes that funding for the plan is far from guaranteed.

US fish farmers produced approximately 300 million pounds of fish and shellfish in 1981, up from an estimated 135 million pounds in 1975. That yield is expected to continue to grow as Americans continue eating more fish. Current per capita consumption of fish is 13.4 pounds per person per year, up 30 percent in the past 20 years, Hougart says.

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