The world’s oceans are in trouble. Litter, urban runoff, dead zones, leaking oil rigs and other factors put stress on sea life, notably fish, and cause alarming changes in our marine environment.

NOAA’s Oct. 11 status of the fish stocks report paints a far brighter picture, suggesting that most U.S. fisheries are in good shape. In reality, this report offers a flawed glimpse at the state of our fish. The update only covers 199 fish stocks – chosen by the agency itself to review – and many of the very popular menu items like red snapper, amberjack and cod are all experiencing problems. The status of some fish are entirely unknown. The fact is, we do not have enough good information to be sure how best to handle managing our fish and oceans well.

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One thing we do know for sure is that we should not be adding stress and pollution to ocean ecosystems. That’s why it is so baffling that we are seeing a renewed major push by the federal government for industrial ocean fish farms.

Lobbyists for the companies who build these aquaculture operations would have you believe the industry is a solution for preserving our marine environment by growing fish to ease the need for taking more fish from the wild. In reality, however, these facilities can exacerbate many of the problems already hurting our oceans. 

Open water fish farms are comprised of giant floating net pens with thousands of fish all eating, excreting and growing in one space. Cages used to contain fish are flow-through, meaning anything from the pens - excess feed, fish wastes, and any chemicals - can go directly into natural waters. 

Major problems with these facilities, from water and habitat pollution to escapes of farmed fish altering wild populations, are documented globally.

When farmed fish escape - which frequently happens, due to inclement weather, predators causing damage to pens, human error or equipment failure - they can spread disease and parasites and out-compete wild fish for food, habitat and mates.

Massive fish escapes from aquaculture facilities occur around the world. Fish farms in Chile, Scotland and Canada had serious viral outbreaks. Notably, such facilities do not ease pressure on global fish populations, since raising larger carnivorous fish often uses smaller wild fish in feed. This can result in overfishing of these smaller fish, creating an imbalance in natural ecosystems.

In short, fish farms threaten the health of the same wild fish that supposedly would benefit from reduced fishing, when more famed fish hit the market.

There are financial consequences too. Harm to wild fish and their habitats also means economic harm to fishing families and coastal communities. Prices local fishermen receive for their catch go down when farmed fish flood the market. That leaves less money for fishing families to spend in their own communities, hurting a wide range of local businesses.

Earlier this year, federal fisheries managers finalized rules that made the Gulf of Mexico the very first region to have a permitting system in place for industrial open ocean aquaculture. Now, Hawai’i seems next on the list.  The Western Pacific Fishery Management Council announced its intent to create an Environmental Impact Statement, which signals that likely new rules allowing more ocean aquaculture in Hawai’i waters are coming. The public can get involved in the early stages of discussion and stop this, but need to act fast -  the comment period on the environmental impact statement ends on Oct. 31.

If we want to see better alternatives to ocean aquaculture put into practice, fishery managers need to hear this loudly and clearly from the public. With strong opposition from citizens and their representatives in government, fishery managers will be forced to end ocean aquaculture and set a precedent to protect threatened ecosystems, fishermen and coastal communities nationwide.

Marianne Cufone is the Executive Director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition, a collaborative group of farmers, educators, non-profit organizations and many others committed to building local sources of healthy, sustainable, accessible food through eco-efficient farms.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.