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Fish Factor

Big push to expand aquaculture
By Laine Welch


April 21, 2007

Offshore fish farms could be down in the deep within two years if legislation authorizing the new industry gets the go ahead from Congress - and according to industry insiders, it is expected to pass easily.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall (D-WV), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, announced last week that, at the request of the Bush Administration, he will introduce the National Offshore Aquaculture Act to Congress to help establish the new industry. The legislation would create a regulatory framework for fish and shellfish farming in U.S. waters from three to 200 miles offshore.

The big push towards expanding aquaculture stems primarily from the nation's $8 billion seafood trade deficit. More than 70 percent of the seafood eaten by Americans is imported from foreign countries. Globally, more than half of all seafood production comes from aquaculture.

Legislating the offshore industry flies in the face of Alaska's federal and state lawmakers. Senator Murkowski and Governor Palin have asked for a five year ban on offshore fish farming to allow time for more environmental and economic studies. Palin also wants a ban on farming certain species like halibut and sablefish, along with subsidies for the fishing industry to compensate for competition from U.S. backed fish farms.

But like it or not, the new industry is poised to move forward fast, and Alaska better pay attention.

"The world is experiencing an aquaculture revolution. Regardless of whether or not we have interest ourselves, we should be paying very close attention to what's happening so we can anticipate where our global markets are likely to be in the future," said Gunnar Knapp, an economist at the University of Alaska Institute of Social and Economic Research.

Since the late 1980s Alaska has had a ban on fish farming of any kind. Knapp said he is not advocating rushing into aquaculture, nor does he believe Alaska should shut the door to the possibility of changes in the future.

"With any kind of resource development, what are the potential opportunities that we might take advantage of, responsibility and safely?

"My feeling is that we should go on more than a gut feeling and a knee jerk reaction of no change from where we are at the moment, to looking at the available evidence with regard to both environmental and market concerns and be sure we're making the right decision," he said.

"It strikes me as a little incongruous that we would take this attitude of no finfish farming whatsoever under any circumstances, and yet we have a very extensive salmon hatchery program that is of great economic benefit. We've made the judgment that any environmental or ecological risks are reasonable and controllable," he added.

Knapp said it is reasonable for Alaska to focus on its wild fisheries and strive to maximize that value.

"But does that preclude any involvement in finfish aquaculture? There's been a fear in Alaska that fish farming would negatively impact our reputation as the place to get wild seafood. I think it is fair to ask -- what is the evidence one way or the other? Are the values of wild fisheries in Norway and British Columbia reduced because they also are major aquaculture producers? Is there a negative market affect?"
Knapp said he finds it interesting that Alaska bristles when others try and dictate what's best for our state, yet Alaskans are now doing that to others.

"It is interesting that Alaska is now telling other states what they should or should not do with aquaculture. I believe in the concept of local control and letting people make their own decisions, both for Alaska and other places," he said.

Copper and fish don't mix

Copper deposited on roads by the wear and tear on vehicle brake pads and exhaust runs off into streams and rivers. Scientists believe that may play a key role in the diminishing salmon stocks throughout California and the Pacific Northwest.

Low copper levels can affect the olfactory senses of juvenile coho salmon, according to a new study by Oregon State University and federal scientists.

"We were surprised that the brake pads coming from vehicles were a main source of copper," said Jason Sandahl, co-author of the study which reveals how contaminants can disrupt the chemical balance of aquatic creatures.

In this case, low levels of copper at just two parts per billion impaired the small fishes' sense of smell, which helps them avoid predators. The skin of juvenile salmon is equipped with a special kind of warning system, said Nat Scholz, a researcher at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. When a salmon is attacked by a predator, a chemical cue is released from the skin that signals danger to nearby fish.

The researchers found that fish exposed to low levels of copper had an impaired sense of smell and were less responsive to the chemical alarm signal. At higher levels of copper, these predator avoidance behaviors were almost nonexistent.

"In the environment, that has some serious implications. If there are predators around and the small fish are not able to respond to these danger signals in the water, they would be the next snack for these larger predators," Sandahl said.

Trace amounts of copper occur naturally in aquatic environments. But fluctuations due to run-off from storms can increase copper levels in rivers and streams to more than 60 parts per billion in some instances.

"In the Northwest, copper from brake pads during the summer can accumulate on the roadsides for several months, and in the fall, when we have our first rain storms, that copper can run into the streams. I believe those short, tense pulses of copper are the most concerning," Sandahl said.

Dissolved copper has been shown to affect the sense of smell in chinook salmon, rainbow and other trout, minnows and tilapia.

The influence of copper on predator-prey interactions is the focus of ongoing research, with the aim of linking fish survival to the productivity of wild salmon populations. The OSU study appears in the publication Environmental Science and Technology.

(Johanna Eurich in Dillingham contributed to this story.)

Feedback on Data for deckhands

Electronic landing reports and fish tickets are systems already in place that could be enhanced to collect labor data for deckhands. That method is the 'preferred alternative' by members of the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference (SWAMC), which encompasses communities of the Aleutians East Borough, the Aleutians West Census Area, the Bristol Bay Borough, the Dillingham Census Area, the Kodiak Island Borough and the Lake & Peninsula Borough.

Lack of information about one of Alaska's largest labor sectors is hampering efforts by fisheries-dependent communities to influence public policy-making, build infrastructure and grow local economies, according to a report by Northern Economics, Inc. SWAMC commissioned the report to find ways to improve the collection and reporting of Alaska's seafood harvesting labor data.

"You want to know where the work force is, and what these people are involved in. It's not just for Southwest communities; it's a bigger Alaska fishery issue," said Andy Varner, SWAMC interim director. "We know these workers are part of these boats and participating in these fisheries, but there are serious gaps of information. It's not documented, so we don't have the statistics and the data we need."

Currently, the number of crew licenses is counted each year, but those are general to all fisheries. No data show where or how much crew members fished, how much they earned, or if they even fished at all. That lack of data puts fishing dependent communities at a disadvantage when it comes to applying for various grants or relief benefits.

Varner said once a path for data collection is chosen, the next step is to identify allies to help keep the project moving forward.

"This could take a legislative mandate to make this happen, especially to get some dollars for these agencies to come up with this crew data," he added.

SWAMC is seeking feedback on the data collection ideas from interested stakeholders. Find the harvester labor data report at


Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. 2007 marks the 16th year that she has been writing this weekly fisheries column. It now appears in nearly 20 newspapers and web outlets.
Contact Laine at msfish[AT]

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