Bill seeks to satisfy demand and reduce imports, at risk to wild fish and the environment
by Randy Hartnell and Craig Weatherby
The Bush administration is backing a bill intended to open federally governed ocean waters to fish farming for the first time. Current U.S. aquaculture operations are sited in state-regulated, near-shore waters.
The bill, known as the National Offshore Aquaculture Act of 2005, is co-sponsored by senate Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska and senate Democrat Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and was submitted early last month.
Members of Congress, coastal communities, and environmental scientists have expressed many concerns about the bill.
The legislation was developed by National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), to provide a framework for development of offshore aquaculture, and the agency expect that Congress will pass the bill this year or next.
The bill would allow the Secretary of Commerce to issue permits for aquaculture operations—fish and shellfish farms—in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which covers all ocean waters from three to 200 miles off the coasts of the United States.
Behind the bill: consumer demand, corporate pressure
Americans are eating increasing amounts of farmed fish (mostly salmon and tilapia) and shellfish (mostly shrimp) imported from Scotland, Norway, Canada, Thailand, China, Ecuador, Chile, Mexico, and other countries.
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the country's annual “seafood deficit” comes to about $7 billion, and America imports almost two-thirds of its fish and shellfish.
The proposed law directs the Secretary of Commerce to consider risks to and impacts on natural fish stocks, marine ecosystems, marine mammals and other forms of marine life, birds, and endangered species before a permit is issued and during operation of the aquaculture facility.
Thanks to the concerns expressed by Alaska's Senator Stevens and others, the bill requires that the laws of the nearest adjacent coastal state apply to all federally permitted offshore seafood farms. This critical provision would enable affected states to enact restrictions beyond those provided for in the regulations written to implement the bill, should it become law.
However, it will be hard for state politicians to resist the development of new offshore businesses, whose owners will promise economic benefits; even though such promises are likely to be empty (Fish farms are not labor intensive, and most will be operated by large corporations with no strong ties to local communities).
In anticipation of the push for more fish farming, the federal government already funds experimental fish farms in Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, and Texas. Most of these projects focus on high–value fish such as amberjack, cod, sablefish, halibut, and red snapper. In some cases, private aquaculture companies are working with these research programs.
Environmental and sustainability concerns
Environmentalists familiar with open net-cage aquaculture—the kind used to raise salmon—say that there are many problems associated with it.
Independent researchers have shown that the typical fish farm is guilty of several environmental sins:
- Fish-farm waste pollutes surrounding waters and smothers ecologically important creatures that live in the seabed.
- Farmed fish spread damaging sea lice to wild fish.
- Escaped fish mate with wild fish, and thereby threaten the genetic integrity (hence the viability) of wild fish.
- Use of fish-based commercial salmon feed depletes stocks of other edible fish (herring, sardines, etc.), producing a net loss of protein, and robbing wild carnivorous fish (such as salmon) of their natural prey.
- By concentrating the normally low levels of pollutants found in the fish used as ingredients (herring, sardines, etc.), commercial feed yields farmed fish with high levels of toxic PCBs and dioxins.
According to the Canada-based David Suzuki Foundation, "Worldwide, open net-cage fish farming industries use publicly owned coastal waters to support what are essentially intensive private feedlot operations that dump drug-laced sewage into the ocean."
Researchers familiar with the problems of open net-cages say that the only safe way to farm fish in the ocean is to use fully enclosed systems, which would keep wastes, lice, drugs, and genetically modified farmed fish from harming the environment.
The farming of carnivorous fish—such as salmon and sablefish—results in a net loss of protein in the global food supply, because as it takes from two to five kilos of wild fish to grow one kilo of salmon.
As the Suzuki Foundation notes, nutritious fish such as herring, mackerel, sardines and anchovy provide the feed for farmed salmon.
Conservation efforts cut while fish-farming gets more funding
In a bizarre upending of priorities, funds for wild salmon recovery programs are being cut even as federal funding for aquaculture grows.
On the same day that the bill to allow fish farming in federal waters was introduced, the House appropriations committee approved a spending bill that would cut the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund by 44 percent. This cut was recommended even though more than two dozen West coast salmon and steelhead populations are listed as threatened or endangered under U.S. law. (NOTE: Alaska wild salmon runs remain healthy).
Conservationists argue, convincingly, that a substantial increase is needed instead to restore imperiled wild salmon stocks. Pacific salmon recovery plans are intended to restore salmon populations to levels at which the protections provided by the Endangered Species Act are no longer needed.
New recovery plans for Puget Sound and the Columbia Basin will require hundreds of millions of dollars per year in new federal, state, local, and tribal funding. The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy—a congressionally mandated body appointed by President Bush—recommended paying for the recovery of species and ecosystems by establishing an Ocean Policy Trust Fund, based on “unallocated” revenues from offshore oil and gas development and new offshore activities, such as aquaculture.
The Bush administration's aquaculture bill makes no mention of where revenues derived from permitting aquaculture facilities might go. Our guess is that conservation efforts will not be the highest priority, unless concerned citizens make their views known to their representatives.
We urge you to contact your Congressional delegation and tell them your concerns about offshore aquaculture. To get their contact information, go to the official Web sites at http://www.house.gov and http://www.senate.gov.
- National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Department of Commerce. NOAA Releases Offshore Aquaculture Bill. Accessed online July 20 at http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/mediacenter/aquaculture/.
- Environment News Service (ENS). Bush Bill Would Open Federal Waters to Aquaculture. June 8, 2005.
- Alaska Marine Conservation Council. Federal Promotion of Offshore Aquaculture: Fish Farming in Federal Waters. Accessed online July 20 at http://www.akmarine.org/ourwork/fact-ooa.shtml.