andrew schneider investigates

May 13, 2008

GAO urges caution on ocean fish farms

Filed under: Public health legislation,Salmon,Seafood,Sustainable food — Andrew Schneider @ 15:51

Let’s talk about fish. Or more specifically, aquaculture, which is the farming of fish and shellfish.


EPA Aquatic Biologist Dave Terpening at one of Idaho’s many fish farms. PI Photo

There are fish farms all across the country. Small mom and pop operations raising catfish in backyard ponds and streams can be found in at least 19 states. Idaho is home to about 60 seafood operations including an alligator breeder and the nation’s largest rainbow and golden trout farms. According to federal investigators, the salmon aquaculture industry in the United States is concentrated in Maine and Washington, with at least eight Atlantic salmon farms floating in Puget Sound alone. Just a bit north, there are another 120 salmon ranches along the inlets, bays and straits of British Columbia.


Of course an alligator is seafood. Ask them in Idaho. PI Photo

As wild salmon grow more scarce due to environmental disruption and diminished water flow on the fish’s traditional spawning rivers, the growth of aquaculture has increased. Enormously in some areas. But some breeders and the White House say the fish pens in coastal waters are not enough to produce the salmon and other finfish needed to supply the market.

The big business “farmers” want permission to build sprawling complexes of floating pens, nets and cages in deep water miles offshore. This is the United States’ Exclusive Economic Zone, which covers three to 200 nautical miles from shore. Thus, opening shop for anything in this hunk of ocean becomes a matter of federal jurisdiction, not state.

As it happens, there are few if any laws on the books to regulate this new concept in fish farming.

In a surprising example of the government actually getting ahead of a problem, the White House last year pushed for the creation of the National Offshore Aquaculture Act, which would give the Commerce Department the authority to regulate offshore aquaculture.

Rep. Nick Rahall, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, introduced the bill in April 2007 “as a favor to the administration. ” Two months earlier he had asked the Government Accountability Office to determine how such an unusual, deepwater, economic activity should be handled to protect the oceans and the food supply.

The GAO issued its 54-page report this week.

Rahall said the administration’s proposed bill doesn’t go far enough to ensure adequate protection for the marine environment.

“This new report makes abundantly clear what I have long believed – any offshore aquaculture development must be done in a manner that does not jeopardize the health of our oceans or the viability of the fishing industry,” said the West Virginia Democrat.

The GAO report identifies several important safeguards that need to be carefully considered before permits are issued to anyone. These include:
� The appointment of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric administration as the lead federal agency to regulate and permit any offshore aquaculture facilities.

� The clear delineation of the roles and responsibilities of other federal agencies and states in the administration of these businesses.

� The establishment of a permitting and site selection process that clearly identifies the terms and conditions for offshore aquaculture operations.

� The implementation of a regulatory process to review, monitor, and mitigate the potential environmental impacts of offshore aquaculture facilities.

The congressional investigators also called for additional research on developing fish feeds that do not rely heavily on harvesting wild fish; exploring how escaped offshore aquaculture-raised fish might impact wild fish populations; and developing strategies to breed and raise fish while effectively managing possible disease.

We’ll get into a look at the oyster, mussels, shrimp and other shellfish growers in another posting.

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