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Will U.S. get hooked on ocean fish farms? Some hope not
Scripps Howard News Service


April 15, 2006

WASHINGTON - The way Mark Vinsel sees it; ocean fishermen are the last of a dying breed in a hunting-gathering tradition that stretches back into history.

But Vinsel fears the days are not long before fishermen go the way of America's small farmers, who are being squeezed off lands by the growth of agribusiness and commercial farming operations.

"The oceans belong to everybody - they should not be fenced off and sold off to the highest bidder," says Vinsel, a Juneau artist and the executive director of United Fishermen of Alaska. Fish-farm technologies can't improve upon nature, or produce fish any cheaper, Vinsel noted: "The way I look at it, a healthy ocean system is natural and cannot be improved upon."




Vinsel and others are alarmed by Bush administration moves to open up areas off the United States to fish farms, where fish are raised in huge underwater nets.

Legislation the administration sent to Congress last June, that is under consideration now, would, for the first time, allow open-ocean aquaculture on federal ocean territory from 3 miles beyond shorelines to 200 miles out. States have jurisdiction only within 3 miles of their shorelines.

William Hogarth, assistant administrator for fisheries at the Commerce Department's National Marine Fisheries Service, said that developing such fisheries could reduce U.S. imports. Over 70 percent of fish consumed in America today is imported, and about a half of that comes from foreign aquaculture projects, Hogarth said. China, Japan, Ireland, Norway and Canada have already approved oceangoing aquaculture.

Commercial operations are only beginning in the United States and its territories. Two fish farms in Hawaii and one in Puerto Rico use netting installed undersea for raising fish. Two commercial mussel farms have also begun operations in Massachusetts.

Hogarth said additional projects have been proposed for the Gulf of Mexico, the Virgin Islands and off California. Under legislation the administration is proposing, the operations would be given 10-year permits to run aquaculture projects.

But environmental groups and state lawmakers complain that things are moving too fast, and that the government isn't fully considering the impact on nearby communities, on subsistence fishermen, or on recreational boating and fishing.

Joe Simitan, Democratic chairman of the California state Senate's Environmental Quality Committee, said the federal government should follow the regulations and restrictions that states have imposed on fish farms within their 3-mile zones. Simitan worries that federally approved projects could be located in sensitive areas that state officials want to protect.

"You have to think of these areas as neighborhoods," Simitan said. He said the government should be careful to locate fish farms in places where currents would not carry waste onto nearby beaches.

Richard Langan, director of the University of New Hampshire's Open Ocean Aquaculture Project, said farms offer a new way to keep coastal communities economically viable and provide new jobs for subsistence fishermen in the wake of the collapse of wild fisheries off the U.S. Northeast coast over the last decade.

"It seems shortsighted for the United States - in need of a solution to the problem of growing seafood demand and limited supply - not to pursue a sustainable approach to offshore aquaculture," said Langan, who once worked as a commercial fisherman.

The aquaculture project has been operating an experimental 30-acre offshore fishery in the Gulf of Maine for the last six years, and Langan said the environmental impact of properly sited operations "has been negligible."

At a recent hearing before a Senate subcommittee, Langan said no changes in water quality, sediments or wild marine communities have been found around the site, and that the cages withstood storms that hit New England.

Langan said that fish farming in the area between Cape Ann, Mass., and Cape Elizabeth, Maine, for example, could generate $40 million in new income each year.

But Marianne Cufone, an attorney with the organization Environment Matters, said the full impact of fish farming hasn't yet been felt.

"There's a total disregard for protecting the public: there are no environmental standards and no real limitations on where these facilities can be. There is a full-on rush to develop open-water aquaculture without any thought to potential consequences. It's madness," she said.

At a minimum, she said, Congress should require the federal government to follow the restrictions that states have imposed on fish-farm developments.

She said no consideration is being given to shrimpers or lobstermen whose livelihoods could be disrupted, or to the impact on recreational activities.

Vinsel, meanwhile, said Alaska fishermen are concerned that farms will generate disease and fish lice, and that the operations might interfere with salmon molts. Alaska's legislature has banned fish farms because they might interfere with salmon runs, he said, but federal moves could allow operations beyond the 3-mile limit.

"There could be drastic market effects,'' Vinsel said. He said Congress should give states the ability to veto offshore projects. "Our fishermen are going to die on our swords on this - it's a life-or-death issue for us," he said.


Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)
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