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Plan for fish farms in federal waters criticized
Scripps Howard News Service


July 14, 2008

WASHINGTON -- Fish farms could be allowed to operate for the first time in federal ocean waters under a Bush administration proposal that critics say is a blatant attempt to bypass Congress and set up a marine program that lawmakers have been reluctant to approve.

A proposed rule, published Wednesday in the Federal Register, opens the door for fish-farm operators to obtain leases, easements or rights-of-way for the use of existing oil and gas platforms in federal waters.

Administration officials say there are currently no proposals to set up fish-farm operations in federal waters, which generally begin three miles beyond the nation's shores.

The proposed rule would simply put in place a process to review and evaluate such a proposal should someone request permission to use offshore platforms for a fish-farming operation, said David Smith, a spokesman for the U.S. Minerals Management Service.

But environmentalists and other watchdog groups suspect something else is behind the administration's plans.

"The Bush administration's proposal provides back-door access to our oceans for industrial-sized fish farms," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the advocacy group Food & Water Watch.

What's more, Hauter said, the proposal "allows energy companies to sell their oil and gas rigs rather than restoring the marine environment."

The administration's proposal is "a monstrous idea," said Santi Roberts, California project manager for Oceana, which works to protect and restore the world's oceans.

"Our oceans are facing extreme stresses, and we need to start reducing pressures where we can, not compounding them by using the waste from one bad idea to push through an even worse idea," Roberts said.

Ocean fish farming, also known as marine aquaculture, is currently limited to three miles off shore. The administration has been pushing for years to extend fish farming into federal waters, arguing the expansion is needed to replenish depleted fish stocks and satisfy Americans' growing appetite for seafood.

But Congress has been hesitant to broaden fish-farming boundaries. A bill that would have allowed federal permits for fish farming from three to 200 miles off the coast died in 2005. Likewise, similar bills have stalled before Congress this year.

The proposed rule allows the administration to take a different approach. By handling the issue through a federal agency's rulemaking process instead of going to Congress, the administration would be able to permit fish farming in federal waters without waiting until lawmakers pass the legislation.

Smith denied that the Bush administration is trying to bypass Congress.

A comprehensive energy bill passed by Congress in 2005 gives the Minerals Management Service the authority to regulate alternate projects, such as fish farms, on offshore platforms, Smith said.

"We're trying our best to follow what Congress told us to do," he said.

Aquaculture is just one of the alternate uses for the platforms that would be considered under the proposed rule, Smith said.

Any fish-farm proposal would have to undergo a review to determine its impact on the environment, he said, and other federal agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, would likely be involved in the regulatory process.

The Minerals Management Service will accept public comment on the proposed rule for 60 days and hopes to finalize the new rule by the end of the year, Smith said.

Opponents argue that offshore aquaculture is bad for the environment because it often involves the discharge of tons of waste and the use of pesticides, antibiotics and other possibly harmful chemicals.

In addition, they say, fish farming can produce non-native species that can escape and spread disease to wild-fish populations.

But proponents counter that, under the right conditions, ocean fish farming can be done without harming the environment or endangering native fish species.

"With any type of food production or just about anything you do, whether it's on land or ocean, there are environmental effects that have to be managed," said Richard Langan, director of the Atlantic Marine Aquaculture Center at the University of New Hampshire. "It's not as black and white as some people would paint."



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