Back in January, I noted that there was a proposal to allow a fish farm in the Gulf of Mexico. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was asked for a ruling on it. On Thursday, the deadline for making such a ruling, the NOAA allowed it to happen by not ruling against it on the grounds that there weren’t any regulations prohibiting it.
Officials said the federal agency will develop and implement a national policy for offshore aquaculture, a process that could take nine months. Until then, the farms could open in the Gulf — though as a practical matter it would take much longer to get one up and running.
“Our options in a case like this are very limited,” NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said in a statement. “I believe this is the best approach to the situation.”
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 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 waters and wild fish stock from disease, pollution and other threats that have troubled fish farms in other countries.
That NOAA allowed fish farms in the Gulf without a ruling troubled opponents.
George Leonard, director of the Ocean Conservancy’s aquaculture program, said the lack of action “created more confusion instead of less” and made it more urgent for Congress to pass fish farming standards.
“Choosing not to make a decision is still making a decision,” Leonard said. “We’re one step closer today to fish farms in the Gulf.”
The Fishery Management Council predicted that its proposal, as drafted, would produce up to 64 million pounds of seafood each year — equivalent to more than half of the annual commercial catch off the Texas coast.
Jim Balsiger, the NOAA Fisheries Service’s acting administrator, said the council’s plan would fill a regulatory void until a national policy is implemented.
“I expect that there will be little difference between plans,” Balsiger said. “If there are, I have confidence that the Gulf council will adjust.”
We’ll see. I wasn’t terribly impressed with opponents’ arguments in January, so perhaps they can do a better job persuading Congress to be more picky about this sort of thing.