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Should offshore fish farms play a role in US seafood industry?

FILE – In this photo provided by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, a crane and boats are anchored next to a collapsed “net pen” used by Cooke Aquaculture Pacific to farm Atlantic Salmon near Cypress Island in Washington state on Aug. 28, 2017. Washington has banned net-pen fish-farming in state waters, citing danger to struggling native salmon. Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz issued an executive order Friday banning such aquaculture. (David Bergvall/Washington State Department of Natural Resources via AP, File)

All-you-can-eat and beer-battered – coming from Wisconsin, these were the main ways I consumed fish for years.

So, when I moved across the country to California, it blew my mind the many kinds of fish that were available and how they could be prepared. Whether it’s wild red sea urchin, Dungeness crab or halibut, I’ve eaten some of these varieties sautéed, poached, or sometimes even raw. 

Now, the menu may change again as legislators and regulators look to facilitate the development of factory fish farms using California as a staging ground. This move would likely decrease the availability of diverse seafood, as corporations mass produce a few species at the expense of local, small-scale fishers and the health of our marine ecosystems.

Around the world, fish consumption is rising. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that consumption of aquatic food per capita steadily increased globally from a yearly average of 21.8lbs in the 1960s, to a record high of 45.2lbs in 2019, before falling slightly to 44.5lbs in 2020.

How to meet this growing demand has caught the attention of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other government agencies. In May 2020, President Trump signed an executive order that gave federal agencies the license to explore bringing industrial ocean fish farms to federal waters. Such farms consist of large, ball-shaped pens in the open ocean, containing thousands of fish of the same species in confined spaces.

Since then, NOAA has identified federal waters off of Southern California and the Gulf of Mexico as aquaculture opportunities areas to explore options for offshore fish farming.

In December, Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), who represents Long Beach and surrounding suburbs, introduced the ‘‘Science-based Equitable Aquaculture Food Act’’ (the SEAfood Act), which could further opened the door to industrial fish farming off our nation’s coasts.

Although this legislation went nowhere this past legislative session, it will probably be reintroduced next term by another California representative.

While the bill correctly orders research on offshore fish farming, the SEAfood Act is problematic in that it requires the approval of, and provides taxpayer money to, large-scale pilot fish farms in our oceans before consulting studies. This backwards approach violates the precautionary principle, which particularly in the areas of health, safety and environmental regulation, advises caution if large, irreversible effects could result from introducing some policy.

Environmentalists and fishers in Florida have been raising concerns over similar projects in the Gulf of Mexico. Environmental experts argue that leakage from the pods would likely contaminate waters with antibiotics and other toxins, as well as with untreated waste, while also increasing the risk for non-native fish to escape and spread disease and parasites in wild ecosystems.

Despite the well-documented risks of industrial fish farms, NOAA has awarded millions on multiple occasions for such endeavors.  

We have seen this model of industrial food production with devastating consequences established on land — namely with concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOS), which have increased in number nationally, while crop and livestock diversity on farms has declined.

According to a study by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the concentrated waste that CAFOs generate not only contaminates drinking water sources, but also is connected to an increase of respiratory illnesses in neighboring communities. Such problems exist as oversight is patchy, if non-existent.

Essentially, offshore fishing facilities are ocean bound CAFOs.

Proponents of industrial farming — offshore fishing operations included — say that production needs to increase to meet consumption needs.

The problem with this argument is that much domestically caught seafood is exported.

Consider that in 2019, Americans consumed 6.3 billion pounds of seafood as American fishermen landed 9.3 billion. This, as the U.S. imports 70 to 85 percent of its seafood, with over $5 billion worth of fish and seafood exported in 2021 alone. Factory fish farming reinforces this system, producing fish geared primarily for export and niche markets.

Instead of supporting these operations, legislation could focus pilot studies on appropriately-scaled shellfish farming, seaweed farming, or land-based recirculating aquaculture systems that do not endanger our oceans.

Small-scale shellfish and seaweed farms, for instance, grow without inputs like feed and fertilizer. Oyster farms can be a boon to surrounding ecosystems, as a single oyster can filter 50 gallons of water per day. Kelp, meanwhile, absorbs huge amounts of carbon through photosynthesis, removing it from the ocean and atmosphere. Recirculating aquaculture systems raise freshwater varieties of fish, such as tilapia. These types of systems provide not only economic growth for communities, but also sustainable and healthy sources of nutrition, helping meet increased domestic demand for seafood.

Moving to California, I learned to love fish. I have also developed a deep respect for the ocean.  For these reasons, factory fish farming off our coast worries me. We can’t have California be the leader in offshore fish farming that is ecologically and environmentally questionable. Doing so would be destructive not only for the well-being of consumers, but for all our finned neighbors and their habitats, in California and beyond.

Anthony Pahnke is vice president of Family Farm Defenders and an associate professor of international relations at San Francisco State University.

Tags Agriculture Alan Lowenthal Donald Trump farming Fish farming ocean pollution Pollution

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