Fish farms take to the high seas

Program moves forward with little science or oversight

  • Submerged net cages like this one may be the future of offshore fish farming

    Courtesy Ocean Spar Technologies

MANCHESTER RESEARCH STATION, Washington — On the banks of Puget Sound, federal marine biologist Colin Nash gives a tour of the aquaculture research he is conducting under the auspices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Department, or NOAA Fisheries. The tour doesn’t take long. Aside from a tank filled with lingcod, sleek coastal fish which Nash and his fellow researchers are trying to breed, there really isn’t that much to see.

But this research is buoying up a big dream: NOAA Fisheries is plotting a massive expansion of the U.S. fish-farming industry, a budding business which has already raised concerns among Indian tribes, health advocates and environmentalists. The agency, with strong backing from the Bush administration, wants to open up the 3.4 million square miles of federal waters — an area bigger than the entire continental U.S. — to businesses that would grow thousands of groundfish like lingcod, rockfish and halibut in huge, submerged net cages.

The agency has drafted a bill that would for the first time create a system for permitting aquaculture in federal waters. The goal is to expand the value of American aquaculture from $1 billion to $5 billion by 2025. Currently on the desk of top officials within the Department of Commerce, the legislation could be in the hands of lawmakers within the next several months, according to NOAA Fisheries officials.

Nash and other agency staffers see fish farms as a way to alleviate pressure on desperately stressed wild populations (HCN, 2/2/04). "Aquaculture could absolutely relieve the U.S. fishery and help the ocean," he says.

But the scene here at Manchester is telling: Although NOAA and its research program SeaGrant have numerous projects related to rearing and engineering ocean aquaculture, the research is still in its early stages. Even Nash acknowledges that the agency isn’t studying the cumulative ecological effects of its plans. "The program is still very much an embryo. Very few people are even working offshore," he says. "At this point, it’s mostly paperwork."

A growing number of critics say that, in the absence of extensive research, the agency’s proposed legislation is premature. With 70 percent of all marine species in a weakened state, they say, now is not the time to take more risks with the deep blue.

The silver dollar seas

The promise of aquaculture shimmers like a net filled with silver dollars. Chile, for example, produces $16 billion in aquaculture annually. The U.S. on the other hand, imports 77 percent of its seafood, creating an annual $7 billion trade deficit. New farms in the United States, say boosters, could secure American access to fish and offset the economic anemia of rural coastal communities, by creating an estimated 600,000 year-round jobs.

"We look at this as a real economic opportunity," says Linda Chaves, aquaculture coordinator for NOAA Fisheries. "If we are going to continue eating seafood at the rate we are today and if we want to benefit from the economics of this industry, then we are going to have to be involved." NOAA’s research arm, SeaGrant, has paid Ocean Spar Technologies, a Bainbridge Island, Washington-based company, to develop 25-by-15-meter UFO-shaped pens that can hold an estimated 150,000 pounds of fish. So far only used by one Hawaiian company in state waters, the nets are made of bulletproof-vest material, and suspended from huge floating poles called spars.

A bill introduced in Congress last year by David Vitter, R-La., would allow oil companies to avoid the cost of removing marine drilling platforms and to claim tax credits if their structures are used by aquaculture companies to anchor their pens.

Where’s the science?

Critics claim that NOAA Fisheries, which is housed in the Commerce Department, is more concerned with economics than ecological protection.

Like salmon farms, which already dot the protected fjords and inlets of British Columbia and Washington state, open-ocean farms will discharge fish feed and fish feces into the ocean. Traditional net pens are vulnerable to tearing and could allow farmed fish to escape, and potentially spread disease and interbreed with wild populations.

"We don’t even know what diseases exist in wild populations of rockfish and we don’t know all the other important things about how these diseases may spread to other species," says Michael Kent, an Oregon State University fish pathologist. "If we don’t do more proactive research, there is the potential that we could spread new pathogens to wild fish."

Although the legislation has not been released to the public, agency officials say it would give NOAA authority to work out the details of environmental protection — a fact that makes critics nervous. On Dec. 23, 2003, a coalition of 13 environmental and fishing groups wrote a letter to NOAA Fisheries, asking the agency to provide an environmental impact statement prior to release of the legislation, as is required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

"We haven’t done (an environmental impact statement) at this point," says agency spokeswoman Susan Buchanan. "We think it’s premature. We plan to do one in the future."

That’s illegal and irresponsible, say critics.

"If Congress and the American people want aquaculture in the (federal waters), but they want it in a careful environmental way, that should be said in a very specific, very permanent way before permits are given," says Ellen Athas, a former ocean policy advisor to President Clinton who now works for the Ocean Conservancy. "We’ve built a history of sound environmental laws. We shouldn’t stop now."

The author writes from Portland, Oregon.

Linda Chaves aquaculture coordinator, NOAA Fisheries, 301-713-2379

Ellen Athas Ocean Conservancy, 202-857-1677

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