Fish (farm) on


If you dine on salmon in the Rockies, you're used to having fish travel by interstate to your dinner plate. But even if you live on the coast, don't be surprised if your next succulent fillet actually comes from the other side of the planet. Unless a menu says "wild," the seafood special probably grew up in a fish farm and could have been shipped from as far away as Chile or New Zealand to your restaurant of choice.

In fact, 84 percent of all seafood consumed in the U.S. comes from abroad, and about half of those imports are farm-raised. But only about 5 percent of the seafood Americans eat comes from domestic fish farms.

The Obama administration hopes to change that. The first federal marine aquaculture policy guidelines released last week by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC) aim to buoy U.S. farmed seafood up into the global marketplace. Most domestic aquaculture has been limited to freshwater and state-owned coastal waters; the new policy could open the floodgates to farming fish offshore by finally developing regulations for federal waters.

A growing domestic aquaculture industry would create jobs and reel in a $9 billion U.S. seafood trade deficit, according to the Commerce Department. But a boom in farmed fish, which reduce demand for wild fish, could hurt Western fishing communities. Rep. Don Young, R-AK, went so far as to introduce a bill last week to negate the new policy, citing concerns about impacts to wild populations.

Indeed, the environmental impacts of fish farming can go deep, as domestic salmon farms and other operations worldwide have shown. Crowded net pens can breed sea lice and other diseases that spread to wild populations, while farm antibiotics leak into surrounding waters. Farm feed is often made from smaller wild fish, potentially hurting those populations and their predators. Effluent from farms causes what David James Duncan, author of The River Why, called "a shit problem." (HCN, 3/17/03, Bracing against the tide) Non-native Atlantic salmon have escaped into Northwest streams, competing with wild stocks.

To address these issues, the new over-arching federal policy emphasizes the need to develop ecologically sound fish farms. NOAA discourages farming non-native fish unless science shows they will "not likely cause undue harm to wild species, habitats, or ecosystems in the event of an escape." The policy also calls for research into alternative feed sources that don't rely on other wild fish populations.

“If done wisely, aquaculture can complement wild fisheries while contributing to healthy oceans and coastal economies,” said Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D., NOAA administrator and under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, in a press release. “As we rebuild wild fish populations, we recognize the world’s demand for safe, healthy seafood will continue to grow. Sustainable aquaculture increases our country’s food security.”

Once the draft policy is finalized, federal agencies will work with regional fisheries management councils to develop a permitting process and management plans for future fish farms. While some environmentalists hope the policy will evolve into meaningful, binding regulations, others just want fish farming to go away altogether.

“Industrial ocean fish farming is a dirty way to produce fish, and contrary to DOC and NOAA’s claims, it is not a sustainable means to supplement the U.S. seafood supply, protect ocean resources, or promote a healthy economy in the U.S,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch.

Fish farmers will likely embrace the opportunity to expand into the high seas once the feds move ahead, and soon more of those farm-fresh fillets could come from our own briny backyard.

Public comment on the draft NOAA policy is open until April 11 here.

Nathan Rice is a HCN intern.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Yodod.