Congress must act now to stop filthy factory farming of the sea

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Shocking statistics like this are central to the debate on fish farms. True, the world is eating more fish, but farming those fish sustainably to feed our appetite for seafood is no solution. Unfortunately, ocean factory fish farms, like the one mentioned in the magazine piece, tip the scale towards extreme pollution and raise concerns for consumers.

Factory fish farms cram thousands of fish into open net pens and cages. These fish are eating and excreting waste into the sea. Like factory farms on land, growing animals in such close quarters often leads to filth and disease. This necessitates the use of sometimes harmful pesticides, antibiotics and chemicals – toxins which not only flow into the surrounding marine environment, but can also end up on our plates.  Moreover, caged fish can escape and overtake or interbreed with wild fish, harming native fish populations.

Unfortunately, the historic mismanagement of our nation’s fisheries has left many to wrongly believe that the only way to meet consumer demand is to pack our oceans with these filthy, industrial-scale factory farms. Indeed, this summer, the federal agency charged with regulating our nation’s fisheries, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was busy moving unilaterally to advance this type of fish farming, modeled after dirty factory farming on land.

In June, NOAA and the Commerce Department issued a brand new federal policy calling for more ocean factory fish farming.  To add insult to injury, NOAA announced that it would begin moving forward with these farms in the already oil-battered Gulf of Mexico.  The government’s plan could allow more than 8 .6 million farmed fish to escape unreported annually.

Then in July, NOAA awarded the first permit for commercial ocean factory fish farming in the federal waters off the coast of Hawaii, leading my group, Food & Water Watch, to file a lawsuit against the federal agency, as it is questionable whether they even have the authority to issue the permit. If the Hawaiian fish farming company that obtained the permit moves forward with its business venture, no doubt many others like it will rush to scale up operations throughout our waters. NOAA’s permit sets a dangerous precedent that allows these fish farming operations to inundate our oceans with pollution, without any real oversight in the future.

Exactly who is behind NOAA’s policies towards fish farming? Not consumers, whose valid health concerns are being ignored, and not organizations that are legitimately concerned with our environment or the interests of working fishermen. No, it appears that NOAA’s policies cater to the corporations that are pushing big aquaculture to the detriment of us all.

The good news is that fish farming does not have to be dirty. Instead of focusing on the more destructive open ocean farms, NOAA could and should be promoting innovative, low-impact aquaculture systems that are land-based and self-contained.

But NOAA seems to be ignoring this option. In fact, the agency has been pursuing a bigger budget to allow more ocean fish farming. The government has already spent over $44 million in support of the troubled industry. And the Obama administration’s proposed 2012 budget allocated another $8.4 million for funding programs related to factory fish farming.

It is unfortunate that, at a time when Congress is pushing to trim the federal budget, NOAA continues to request money for this unnecessary, polluting industry – money that could be spent supporting more sustainable industries, job creation and economic growth.

Fortunately, Congressman Don Young from Alaska recently introduced a bipartisan bill that would stop federal agencies like NOAA from permitting ocean fish farming until Congress expressly gives them the authority to do so.

This autumn, Congress has an opportunity to put the breaks on these destructive factory farms of the sea. The questions is, will they seize this opportunity by supporting common-sense legislation like Congressman Young’s, or will they continue to allow other federal agencies to dictate our fisheries policy on behalf of corporate interests?

 
Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director, Food & Water Watch