Bush Seeks Expansion
by Robert McClure
Plan stirs debate about balancing demand, environmental impact
Calling fish farming a potential boon for consumers and the economy, the Bush administration yesterday proposed to massively expand the practice to waters as far as 200 miles offshore.
Supporters in Washington, including a state senator who advocates for fish farmers, urged Congress to bless the idea. They said a likely result -- if fish-culturing methods can be perfected -- would be a cheap source of ocean-grown delights, such as black cod, in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Critics answered that the aquaculture build-up is a get-rich-quick scheme destined to leave taxpayers subsidizing an industry that would pollute the ocean, serve up substandard fish and, ultimately, center its economic activity in Third World nations.
The two sides have skirmished for years about the advisability of huge salmon-growing pens in Chile, Norway, British Columbia and other regions, while Washington's state-controlled waters have seen only modest aquaculture growth.
The proposed federal legislation would pave the way for more welcoming regulations in federal- and state-controlled waters, advocates here say.
"We can create new jobs. This is going to generate more money for coastal communities and the economy of the United States," said Susan Buchanan of the National Marine Fisheries Service, which wants to promote and regulate aquaculture from 3 to 200 miles offshore. Waters closer to shore are regulated by states.
The proposal, spanning 3.4 million acres, opens a debate in Congress about how to balance the nation's need for fish with a string of criticisms and uncertainties about the ultimate economic and environmental effects of the fast-growing global industry.
The United States imports 70 percent of seafood consumed in this country, with two-fifths of the imported fare coming from fish farms.
As this country's wild fish runs have been harvested to excess, federal fisheries authorities increasingly have viewed fish farming as the way out of a difficult dilemma.
At current consumption rates, the nation's annual seafood needs are expected to increase by one-third, to 8 million metric tons, by 2025.
"If we can't get our act together, we're going to keep importing seafood," said Michael Rubino, manager of aquaculture programs for the Fisheries Service. "Nutritionists are asking us to eat twice as much seafood. ... How do we do that? That's a challenge for us."
While proponents anticipate cheaper prices at the seafood counter, critics say flooding the market with lower-quality farmed fish will bankrupt traditional fishermen.
Environmentalists and commercial fishermen say the legislation is too broad and gives the Department of Commerce, the parent agency of the Fisheries Service, total discretion on environmental regulations.
"Any time you have a confined feedlot operation, you're going to have disease and pathogens and parasites, so you're always medicating for your weakest animal -- whereas in nature, that animal would die and become part of the food chain," said Anne Mosness, a Bellingham-based crusader for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a national research and advocacy group.
"It's the equivalent of having a hog farm in a city park flushing its wastes into the street," she said.
Mosness, who fished for salmon in Alaska for 28 years, worries that producing enough salmon in fish farms will give politicians an excuse to discontinue environmental-protection efforts designed to make Northwest rivers more welcoming to salmon.
The kind of fish farming being encouraged by the proposed law is different from what is practiced in shallow waters such as Puget Sound. In Washington waters, Seattle-based Smoki Foods currently runs eight salmon-growing net pens: three off Kitsap County; three near Port Angeles; and two near Anacortes.
Those pens float on the water's surface.
Offshore aquaculture, though, is based on underwater fish cages. It's also practiced in deeper water, where ocean flushing could mean fewer pollution problems. Cages to contain the fish can float near the surface, or can be anchored lower.
One of the biggest local beneficiaries could be Bainbridge Island-based Net Systems Inc., a global leader in building the offshore net systems.
The legislation proposed yesterday "is the talk of the town in my industry," said Langley Gace of Net Systems.
Gace said that while he hopes the legislation succeeds and promotes a new homegrown aquaculture industry, he isn't waiting around for it. The 65-employee firm has sold ocean cage systems in Portugal and Spain, and is currently installing them in South Korea.
He praised the Bush proposal.
"Not only will it streamline the permit process, but it also shines a spotlight on aquaculture," Gace said. "Top government officials ... have all been discussing this, and I think that's a first. It's taking a more business-minded approach."
In this country, trial aquaculture projects are under way off New Hampshire, Puerto Rico and Hawaii.
The Gulf of Mexico is widely viewed as the most readily exploitable U.S. waters from a commercial standpoint because the Gulf is relatively shallow and fish tend to grow bigger faster in warm waters.
However, some fish can't be grown there. Prized cold-water species such as black cod -- also known as sablefish -- and halibut are two examples.
But for now, neither can be produced in commercially viable quantities, although research efforts continue, said Dan Swecker, secretary-treasurer of the Washington Fish Growers Association. Swecker is also a Republican state senator from Rochester.
Still, Swecker praised the Bush plan because it would set up federal standards and give some predictability to a regulatory system that is currently unworkable.
"It would clear the way in Washington and in the United States," Swecker said. "This stuff is going to happen anyway. It's happened with salmon on a massive scale in other countries. ... The question isn't whether or not it's going to happen. The question is whether it's going to happen here."
Chemical Discovered in Farmed Salmon, CBC News, 6/4/5
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