Americans are eating more and more seafood. It's not surprising: Seafood tastes great and is generally heart-healthy. But after decades of mismanagement of our wild-capture fisheries, much of what we eat is no longer caught in U.S. waters. The bulk is imported from overseas, and much of that is farmed - a process called aquaculture. Open-ocean aquaculture is fish farming in large cages well offshore. While some forms of aquaculture, such as farming shellfish, are environmentally low risk, others, such as salmon farming, have a proven track record of environmental problems. It’s shocking to know that despite the growing demand for farmed fish, there are no national standards to address the numerous risks.

Because the federal government has yet to act, regions are putting forward their own plans, setting a dangerous precedent. In spite of vast public opposition across the US, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council became the first fishery council to approve open-ocean aquaculture in federal waters in January 2009. If the plan is approved, it will pave the way for industrial aquaculture operations in the federal ocean without national environmental, socio-economic, and liability standards to ensure a sustainable future for US fish farming. Should the Secretary of Commerce approve this plan, what is to stop a second fishery Council from instituting even weaker standards in their own area? This issue is not unique to the Gulf of Mexico. Just last month, Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute announced its plans to build a massive fish farm off San Diego in southern California.

All Americans should be concerned with this type of piecemeal expansion of aquaculture. Vast amounts of small, wild fish must be caught to feed the farmed fish, adding to the stress on our already-taxed oceans. And the use of open-net pens allows concentrated fish waste and chemicals to flow directly into the ocean. Net pens are also prone to escapes, allowing farmed fish to interbreed with wild populations and spread disease to wild fish. To ensure these concerns don’t occur here in the U.S., a precautionary plan needs be developed now, before there is a substantial aquaculture industry that becomes difficult to redirect. Indeed, the Pew Oceans Commission, chaired by Leon Panetta and President Obama’s choice to head NOAA, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, have called for such a coordinated federal framework with strict standards before open-ocean aquaculture proceeds.

We should not open up our oceans to aquaculture or any other large scale industrial uses without strong national standards and a clear vision of how the nation will use – and protect – its ocean resources that are held in public trust for all Americans. The Gulf of Mexico plan and the proposal in San Diego should serve as a wake up call to Congress that regional decisions are being made that have national implications. The future of the U.S. seafood supply is a national issue and Congress should rightly be leading that discussion.
Let's get aquaculture right the first time. If we don't, there may not be a second chance.