January 29, 2009
Fish farming in the Gulf?

Not sure what I think about this.

Regional fishery managers have a plan to open the Gulf to the first industrial-scale fish farms in federal waters.

The proposal -- intended to help reduce the nation's reliance on imported seafood -- calls for raising millions of pounds of amberjack, red snapper and other Gulf species each year in submerged pens three miles to 200 miles off the coast.

But the plan has raised concerns from environmental and fishing interests about how to protect the Gulf's wild fish stock and waters from disease, pollution and other threats that have troubled fish farms in other countries.

What's more, some of the plan's critics contend that the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which is responsible for the Gulf's fish population, shouldn't act before Congress establishes federal regulations for the emerging industry.

"We're not fundamentally opposed to fish farms," said George Leonard, director of the Ocean Conservancy's aquaculture program. "But we need to get it right the first time, and one way of doing it is to have a national debate."

The time is apparently now, because the plan was approved, though it still has to get past the Commerce Department.

Those against the plan say the large cages and pens that would raise fish far offshore would pollute the oceans with fish waste and chemicals. Farmed fish, which often get heavy doses of antibiotics, can also escape into the wild and interfere with native species.

"We simply do not want this," said Avery Bates, vice president of the Organized Seafood Association of Alabama. "Do not allow this, I don't care who's pushing your buttons ... Don't put us out of business."

Bates, who represents about 200 commercial fishermen in Alabama, said there was fear that foreign companies would buy permits to farm fish offshore and then sell the fish at reduced prices, undercutting U.S. fishermen.

The United States takes in about $10 billion in seafood imports a year and exports only about $2.7 billion, according to data from the Commerce Department. About 80 percent of all seafood consumed in the United States is imported.

Commercial seafood company owner John Ericsson favors the plan. He said the United States has fallen behind countries such as Greece, Norway and Chile, where offshore farming has taken off.

His said his company, Florida-based BioMarine Technologies Inc., is looking at growing fish in cages that could contain up to 60,000 cobia, also known as king fish in the Northeast, and amberjack. He said it would take about $10 million to set up an offshore fish farm.

"It's a serious business commitment," he said.

Besides creating jobs, fish farming is important for the nation's food security, he said. "Just think if someone was able to wipe out our cows and other land creatures with an anthrax. Where would we get our protein from?" he said.

I have to say, neither of those arguments strike me as particularly compelling. Surely the advocates on either side can do better than that. I think I'm just going to have to read around and see what I can learn about them before I come to any judgment about this. What do you think?

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 29, 2009 to The great state of Texas

This would cover federal waters (3 marine leagues to 200 miles). There's already been an attempt at offshore fish farming at an abandoned rig in state waters.

Posted by: Jeb on January 29, 2009 11:17 AM

In my previous life I was a marine fisheries biologist and manager with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Alaska. This type of aquaculture is completely banned in the waters off Alaska and there are moratoriums on new net pens in the northwest.

In the northwest and Alaska when they talk about net pen fishing they are talking about salmon and there are all sorts of environmental issues with the mingling of farm raised salmon and wild salmon. And the net pens are all in nearshore waters and bays were there are indeed environmental pollution issues. But the primary opposition to this sort of thing has always been from the fishermen.

You'll notice that the fishermen themselves will universally oppose this type of thing citing all sorts of reasons from environmental concerns to foreign investors. But primarily they're looking out for themselves. The US processing companies are generally going to favor it because they tend to be larger vertically integrated companies that have the cash for this sort of investment. And if they can cut the actual fishermen out of the loop and raise the fish themselves they greatly increase their profits.

I don't know enough about this particular proposal to have an opinion. But I don't think it's really necessary to wait for Congress to weigh in with specific legislation. The Magnuson-Stevens Act provides NMFS and the Councils with plenty of authority to deal with this issue without new legislation. And existing environmental laws will require a lot of study and review before any project is approved. They'll have to look carefully at everything from endangered species issues (sea turtle entanglement? seabirds?) to pollution, introduced species, marine debris, etc, etc. And also do an economic impact assessment on existing industries.

Just because the Council has set up rules for aquaculture operations doesn't mean any particular operation has been approved. Each individual proposal would have to go through some sort of lengthy permitting process entailing environmental and economic review and possibly an environmental impact statement.

Posted by: Kent from Waco on January 29, 2009 9:33 PM
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