Fishermen want to throw fish farms back

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) proposal to expand fish farming may face choppy waters before passing Congress, although senators expressed general support for the measure yesterday.

Environmental groups are worried that the bill doesn’t do enough to protect against pollution from fish farms and the possibility of the spread of disease from farm-raised fish to those in the wild.

“There is no standard in the legislation for environmental protection,” said Rebecca Goldburg, a senior scientist at Environmental Defense.

Senators said yesterday that they support the idea of allowing fish farms in federal waters. The farms are not currently allowed. But senators also offered early amendments to the administration’s proposal.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the bill, introduced the NOAA bill along with an amendment to allow states to “opt-out” of federal offshore aquaculture plans.

Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Commerce Committee ranking member, co-sponsored another amendment with Stevens to provide environmental safeguards for wild fish stocks and to strike language that would have allowed foreign governments to operate offshore aquaculture facilities.

“Because we have only had the bill for a short time, we have not had the opportunity to thoroughly analyze it,” Stevens said in a statement.

“It is possible that there will be other concerns that we will need to address as this bill moves through the Senate.”

Lawmakers from Stevens’s home state of Alaska have already expressed their concerns. The state Legislature passed a resolution against the expansion of offshore aquaculture, fearing a threat to the state’s lucrative commercial fishing industry.

But NOAA officials say fish farms in federal waters are needed to meet American’s growing taste for seafood and will create thousands of jobs and additional revenue for coastal states. 

NOAA unveiled its legislation at a press conference Tuesday. The bill would dramatically expand fish farming in offshore waters, which lie three to 200 miles offshore.

Michael Rubino, NOAA’s manager for aquaculture programs, acknowledged that the proposed bill doesn’t get into detailed environmental standards. But it does set up the framework under which those standards will be developed, he said.

Specific regulations to protect the environment will be developed over a two-year process after enactment of the bill, he said. That effort would include development of environmental-impact statements that will address potential problems of pollution or interbreeding of escaped farm fish with wild stocks.

As written, the bill gives the Commerce Department secretary the authority to issue permits for aquaculture — or fish farms — in federal waters. There is no mechanism in place now to allow the farms to operate there. Some states allow fish farming in ocean waters off their shorelines, but 70 percent of the domestic aquaculture industry is inland freshwater catfish farms, Rubino said.

The plan is to grow the $1 billion aquaculture industry into a $5 billion business by 2025 to meet demand growth.

Rubino said demand is expected to grow by 2 million metric tons in the next 20 years. Americans now consume about 6 million metric tons of seafood annually.

“While other countries have continued to develop aquaculture, the United States has fallen behind — resulting in a swelling seafood trade deficit,” according to a NOAA press release.

Most of the seafood Americans consume comes from overseas; 70 percent is imported. Of the total seafood eaten, 40 percent of it is farmed overseas.

Critics say fish farming does not alleviate competition for fish. It takes 3 pounds of fish to make enough fish mill to raise 1 pound of salmon, for example.

But Susan Buchanan, a NOAA spokeswoman, said that in the wild the ratio is more dramatic: It can take 10 pounds or more fresh fish to raise a wild fish. Also, NOAA has experimented with soy-based feed that could replace the mill now produced by grinding up caught fish.
Goldburg said her research has found that fish farms often are another competitor to commercial fisheries for fish stocks.

She said her group is not “against aquaculture per se.” But she worries fish farms could become “floating feedlots,” especially if the farms are clustered in certain areas.

Rubino said the bill would help alleviate pollution problems, such as raised nitrate levels, now evident along shorelines because it will allow for a greater dispersal of fish farming.