Senate Panel Dives Into Fish Farm Debate

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, April 10, 2006 (ENS) - The Bush administration's desire to expand aquaculture in federal waters drew support from the Senate Commerce Committee Thursday, but senators outlined concerns that the specific plan fails to safeguard the environment and lacks protection for state fishing interests.

The hearing was the first look by the committee at the administration's proposal to increase fish farming five-fold over the next decade.

The plan calls for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) to develop a permit system to allow fish farming in the 3.4 million square mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends from three to 200 miles off the U.S. coast.

Permits for fish farms would be granted with 10-year renewable leases under the plan, which was introduced as legislation by Senators Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, and Daniel Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat

The pressure to expand U.S. aquaculture is coming from American consumers, said Senator John Sununu, a New Hampshire Republican, and there are economic and environmental reasons for the U.S. to move aggressively.

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NOAA vessel deploys a deep ocean aquaculture cage (Photo courtesy NOAA)
"American consumers are enjoying more seafood every year," said Sununu, chair of the committee's National Ocean Policy Study. "This increase in consumption is not coming from the wild and much of the increase is from overseas from fish farms far from U.S. environmental regulations."

With wild fish populations declining across the world, fish farming has boomed in the past three decades and now supplies some 40 percent of the world's total food fish supply.

The United States imports more than 70 percent of its seafood and half of these imports come from fish farms.

NOAA Fisheries Director Bill Hogarth told the panel the plan would create thousands of jobs as well as ease pressure on wild fish populations and on the nation's $8 billion annual seafood deficit.

"The U.S. must explore the potential of offshore aquaculture," Hogarth said. "We need to create this opportunity now."

The administration envisions "a one-stop permitting system by NOAA," said Hogarth, who added that the plan provides the regulatory certainty that business interests need and binds permit holders to "strict environmental standards."

The potential for fish farms to harm the environment is high concerns include escaped fish, disease and water quality and critics say the plan is overly focused on expanding aquaculture without appropriate consideration of protecting the environment.

"Pursuing aquaculture without adequate safeguards may be worse than not pursuing aquaculture at all," said Rebecca Goldberg, a biologist with Environmental Defense. Goldberg was a member of a citizens fact-finding panel funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts that traveled the United States over the past several months gathering information about the environmental, economic and social impacts of offshore aquaculture.

The bill gives federal regulators "enormous discretion to implement environmental standards," Goldberg said.

Permits should not be given unless the operation in question "will not result in any adverse effect on marine fisheries and ecosystems," she told the committee.

Another major worry is the composition of the feed for the penned fish.

The carnivorous fish most likely to be farmed such as halibut, salmon and cobi require some two to four times more wild fish to be caught for their feed than is ultimately harvested, Goldberg said.

Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, noted that recent studies have found high levels of contaminants including PCBs in some farmed salmon.

These findings, along with concerns about the antibiotics and vaccines often given to farmd fish to curb disease outbreaks, have many consumers wary about farm-raised fish, Boxer said.

"We need to protect our children and make sure what we are doing here is helpful," she said. "There is the potential irony that we could have a system that reduces wild fish and makes our people sick."

Boxer said she is not opposed to offshore aquaculture, but wants to ensure there are "strong safeguards are in place before we proceed with any offshore aquaculture permitting."

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OceanSpar 3000 cage, a fully submersible open ocean fish farm cage deployed in Hawaii. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
Lawmakers should adopt a plan that sets uniform national standards, rather than the approach outlined in the bill, which allows permitting "on an ad-hoc basis," Boxer said.

Stevens, who is chair of the committee, told the panel he plans to offer an amendment to give states the right to block fish farms in federal waters off their coasts.

"Clearly it should be the right of a state to opt out," Stevens said.

Alaska currently has a ban on fin fish farms and the state's fishing interests are not keen to see that change.

"Current technology does not adequately protect existing ocean resources from harm from fish farms seeking to grow fish to market size in open or coastal waters," said Mark Vinsel, executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska

"Species that do not occur naturally in an area should not be considered and neither should genetically-modified fish," Vinsel said. "They will escape with unpredictable consequences to the local ocean."

Representatives of the nation's $1 billion aquaculture industry said the bill is a good first step, but criticized the lease periods.

"I would not invest in the EEZ zone if I only had a 10-year lease," said Randy Cates, president of Cates International, which harvests moi in fish pens off the coast of Hawaii. "It is just too short for that level of investment."

The 5-year renewal lease is also too short, said Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association.

"The renewal should be for a longer, not a shorter period," Belle said.

Richard Langan, director of an aquaculture research program at the University of New Hampshire, told the committee that offshore aquaculture is neither a "silver bullet [nor] an environmental disaster waiting to happen."

The bill provides "an excellent framework for moving forward," said Langan, a former commercial fisherman and oyster farmer.

"There has to be an alternative to hunting down the last fish in the ocean," said Langan. "Aquaculture is here to stay. It is a matter as to whether the United States wants to be part of the production side of things. We have been pretty good job of being consumers of aquaculture products - now it is time to decide if we want to be producers."