Fish farms in the ocean? Group pushes Congress to pass tough rules.

With an eye toward putting more homegrown fish fillets on American plates, the US government is laying the groundwork to open its offshore waters to industrial-scale fish farms.

But before it opens vast areas of ocean to aquaculture, Washington needs to ensure that fish farms don't sully the wider waters that nurture them, according to several experts. These experts offered a blueprint for building a sustainable offshore aquaculture industry in a report released earlier this week.

It calls for the federal government to grant permits for farms in the waters between three miles and 200 miles offshore. To receive those permits, owners would have to comply with strict water-quality standards. The fish they could farm would be limited largely to local native species. If owners wanted to grow nonnative species, they would have to show that the harm to wild species in the area would be small if members of their "crop" escape. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would grant and oversee the permits.

The report – from the grass-roots Marine Aquaculture Task Force – comes as lawmakers and NOAA are preparing draft legislation to open the nation's offshore waters to fish farming. Some 40 percent of the fish Americans eat come from overseas fish farms, according to the US Commerce Department. This contributes to an $8 billion seafood trade deficit. The Bush administration aims to expand today's $1 billion-a-year aquaculture industry to $5 billion a year by 2025.

But using fish farms to meet the world's growing demand for protein is controversial.

Advocates see industrial-scale deep-sea aquaculture as inevitable. Marine scientists estimate that some 70 percent of marine fisheries are so heavily fished that the species either aren't reproducing fast enough to replace the losses, or they are barely keeping pace. Aquaculture, proponents argue, can help meet demand for fish and help allow wild fish stocks to rebuild.

Opponents, however, cite a range of problems. Based on experiences with modern aquaculture so far, relatively pampered farmed fish can escape and breed with wild stocks, rendering wild fish less genetically fit to survive the harsh conditions they face. Similar concerns accompany the prospect of farming genetically modified fish. Farms can undercut the quality of seawater in the area as nutrient levels – as well as antibiotics or other drugs in the feed – increase beyond the ecosystem's ability to cleanse the water. And fish farming can lead to overfishing of the species used as feed. Growers raising carnivorous fin fish must supply roughly three pounds of fish meal and oil to raise one pound of farmed fish.

"Aquaculture is agriculture, but in a whole new domain," says Christopher Mann, executive director of the small team of scientists, public officials, environmentalists, and industry representatives that prepared the report. "If we're going to get into this in an industrial way – and it looks like we are – we have an opportunity to do it right" from the beginning.

On the heels of two major reports in 2003 and 2004 on the need to overhaul US ocean policy, Sens. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska and Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii introduced legislation two years ago designed to jump-start aquaculture in federal waters out to 200 miles. But the bill has languished, notes Rebecca Goldburg, of Environmental Defense in New York. Its shortcomings, she says, included very weak environmental provisions.

The new report represents a grass-roots effort among scientists, environmentalists, and fish farmers to address issues raised by the two major reports and the legislation, says Judy McDowell, a marine biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Woods Hole, Mass. With backing from the The Pew Charitable Trusts and The Lenfest Foundation, Dr. McDowell pulled the team together in 2005 to examine industrial-scale aquaculture.

Although the report was publicly released only Monday, its provisions already have had an effect, Dr. Goldburg notes. NOAA recognized the shortcomings in the original bill and has drafted tighter environmental provisions for a similar bill expected to be introduced during the new session of Congress. The changes, she says, were based on an early look the group gave NOAA at some of the report's recommendations.

It's unclear how quickly offshore aquaculture would grow if a bill passes, says Adm. Richard Pittenger, a former WHOI official who chaired the panel that wrote the report. "Working in the ocean, it's absolutely guaranteed that catastrophes will happen; it's a nasty environment." Frequent storms and the high cost of operating ships to maintain and repair undersea pens and environmental monitoring equipment are among the challenges.

Still, task-force members say, the recommendations should put US efforts on a sound environmental and economic footing and influence aquaculture practices in other countries as well.

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