U.S. approves open-ocean aquaculture in Gulf


Steven Hedlund

Published on
September 3, 2009

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Thursday announced its intent to establish a regulatory framework for open-ocean aquaculture in federal waters, designed to simplify and accelerate the permitting process and protect the marine environment.

The announcement comes about six months after the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council voted to allow open-ocean aquaculture and establish a permitting process to farm fish native to the Gulf.

The federal regulatory framework will provide context for a fishery management plan (FMP) for fish farms in the Gulf, said NOAA. The FMP would allow for an estimated five to 20 fish farms in the Gulf over the next 10 years, and each permit would be issued for an initial 10-year period and subject to renewal every five years, added the agency. Though the FMP went into effect on Wednesday, regulations must be published before permits can be issued.

The initiative is the first of any kind in U.S. waters, which extend from 3 to 200 miles offshore. Former President George W. Bush’s administration pushed to set up a regulatory framework for open-ocean aquaculture, but its bill, the National Offshore Aquaculture Act of 2007, never became law.

Currently, there are only a few open-ocean fish farms operating in federal waters off Hawaii, New Hampshire and Puerto Rico.

Supporters say open-ocean aquaculture will take pressure off of wild fish stocks, create jobs for fishermen and reduce the country’s dependence on imported seafood (roughly 85 percent of the U.S. seafood supply is imported).

“Our options in a case like this are very limited, and I believe this is the best approach to the situation,” said NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco. “This plan is far broader in scope than any aquaculture measures previously submitted. We believe that permitting plans of this scope should be governed by a national policy.”

Opponents say open-ocean aquaculture will harm the marine environment, including wild fish stocks that may encounter farmed fish.

Environmental NGO Food & Water Watch on Thursday lambasted NOAA for “allowing development of what are essentially factory farms of the sea — dirty, crowded mass-production facilities that can harm the environment and produce lower-quality fish for consumers.”

“Open-ocean fish farms pose significant environmental threats to our marine ecosystems. Approval of offshore aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico without the establishment of science-based and precautionary national standards is a recipe for disaster,” said Christopher Mann, senior officer at the Pew Environment Group.

“There’s no shortage of scientific evidence showing the serious damage caused by large-scale aquaculture to marine environments,” he added. “Disease and pollution from the discharge of untreated waste continue to plague fish farms worldwide. And the use of wild fish in aquaculture feeds puts additional pressure on struggling fish stocks.”

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