Aquaculture Report Urges Growth, Better Regulation
There's a 90 percent chance the next slice of fresh salmon you eat will have been raised in a floating fish pen rather than plucked from the ocean by a salty fisherman.
Aquaculture, the production of aquatic plants and animals under controlled conditions, is looking like the next gold rush in the food industry.
But as the growth of U.S. fish farming shifts from freshwater ponds to the ocean, the potential for environmental disaster increases.
"If you do it right, it's good," said Paul Dayton, a professor at the UCSan Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography. "But the world is full of horror stories."
Dayton is among the authors of a national report released yesterday encouraging the federal government to get more involved in regulating and fostering the growth of marine aquaculture.
The 128-page report represents the analysis of a nine-member task force convened by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
The report urges Congress to enact legislation designating the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as the lead agency in permitting oceanic aquaculture operations and to establish minimum environmental standards.
"Two key failings of the current legal regime for marine aquaculture are the lack of clear federal leadership and the lack of standards to protect the marine environment," the report states. "No agency is charged to coordinate the overall process."
California has been a national leader in laws regulating aquaculture. In 2003, the state banned salmon farming and the introduction of genetically modified, non-native fish.
Last year, California also established standards for commercial fish farming and authorized spending $300,000 to study how and where to conduct marine aquaculture without harming the environment.
"There's nothing comparable to what California has required," said Tim Eichenberg, Pacific region director of The Ocean Conservancy.
States control waters within three miles of their coastline. Federal jurisdiction ranges from 3 miles to 200 miles offshore.
Scientists and fish-farm entrepreneurs have been frustrated with the federal government's lack of attention and oversight. San Diego-based Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute spent $250,000 from 2002 to 2005 in a failed attempt to get a permit to install an aquaculture research station at a dormant oil platform off Ventura.
Hubbs gave up on trying to locate the project off the California coast because of delays in getting permits from state and federal officials, said Don Kent, the institute's executive director.
A suitable location was found in Mexican waters. Within three weeks, the institute had a permit to do research on yellowtail, striped bass and Pacific halibut in ocean pens off Ensenada in Baja California, Kent said.
The government should use a feather rather than a hammer as it moves to control an industry still in its formative stages, Kent said.
"We already have too many limitations on an industry that doesn't exist," he said.
Increased aquaculture has the potential to reduce commercial fishing pressure on wild fish and help hold down seafood prices. It's also easier for fisheries agents to monitor stationary fish pens and cages as opposed to thousands of free-roaming fishing vessels.
Mistakes by fish farmers have harmed the environment.
Farm-raised Atlantic salmon in British Columbia have escaped their nets and infiltrated the same rivers and streams used by native Pacific salmon. Floating pens improperly located in inlets shielded from ocean currents have resulted in the ocean floor being degraded by fecal matter.
Some fish farms that use pesticides, herbicides and antibiotics have polluted adjacent waters. Critics say fish farming could indirectly deplete the oceanic food chain and make it harder for wild species to survive. This could happen if sardines, anchovies and other prey species are overfished to produce fish meal pellets and fish oil, primary sources of nourishment for farm-raised fish.
The report recommends that only locally indigenous species should be commercially farmed unless it can be proven that no harm will result from escaped fish.
It also urges the federal government to fund research into alternatives to fish meal and fish oil.
The U.S. Department of Commerce has called for a five-fold increase in the production of domestic aquaculture over the next 20 years, a goal that will require conversion of five square miles of ocean into fish farms.
Currently, most of the domestic product, primarily catfish, is grown in freshwater. Advances in technology and a growing demand for seafood have triggered an increase in interest for expanding ocean aquaculture.
"With marine aquaculture, we stand on the shore of a new frontier in agriculture," the report states.
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Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services