Fish on the Farm
Rep. Sam Farr and local environmentalists push Congress to regulate aquaculture.
Thursday, June 23, 2005
Some call it “fish in a toilet”—farmed seafood raised in pens, where food, waste and fish mingle in unnatural concentrations. But in a world with a burgeoning population and a growing appetite for protein from the oceans, aquaculture has become one of the answers to the question of how to feed everyone without stripping the seas clean of wild fish.
“If the human population is going to continue to eat fish and we’re taking from the environment in a not balanced way, it seems logical that eventually you get into fish farming, just as we went into cattle farming and chicken farming and hog farming and everything else instead of living off the wild,” says Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel).
Many local environmentalists share Farr’s view that aquaculture is here to stay. The issue now is how to do it well. Freshwater aquaculture—the raising of catfish in the southern US, for example—is reportedly a fairly clean operation, as is the farming of filter feeders like abalone. But marine finfish aquaculture is another story, and a worrisome chapter was just added to it three weeks ago.
On June 7 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a proposal allowing fish farms in federal waters, which extend from three to 200 miles offshore. In spite of a request last July from Farr and Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) for a Legislative Environmental Impact Statement, the proposal emerged with no environmental guidelines. Given aquaculture’s documented problems—disease, pollution and even “genetic pollution,” the term for when farmed fish escape into the wild—a cry went up from the environmental community. Farr and Capps made another request for an environmental study prior to Congressional approval of the bill.
“We don’t want NOAA to leap without looking,” Farr says, “because the fisheries community has had experience with this, particularly in Canada where they did a lot of salmon ranching, and there were massive die-offs and all kinds of pollution and mortality of fish.”
NOAA Fisheries spokeswoman Susan Buchanan says there’s been a big misunderstanding. This is framework legislation, she says, not meant to provide specifics. Those will come later in regional hearings where stakeholders hammer out guidelines for their regions.
“The anti-aquaculture people were wanting to have environmental standards be part of the legislation, but that never happens,” she says. “You don’t have the authority to spend the money and time doing that until Congress enacts the legislation.”
That is cold comfort coming from this administration, says Mike Sutton, vice president of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and director of its Center for the Future of the Oceans. “There’s no confidence that the government, especially this administration, will implement environmental standards,” he says.
Key to the environmental community’s distrust is the fact that NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce, and aquaculture represents an opportunity to make up the US’ $7 billion-a-year “seafood deficit.” The US is the third-largest consumer of seafood in the world, but we import 70 percent of what we eat. Environmentalists fear the commercial opportunity is overshadowing everything else.
There is some hope. NOAA’s bill was introduced in the Senate by Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), both of whom have large fishing constituencies. They included an amendment with the bill allowing states to opt out of aquaculture in their federal waters. If the amendment comes through, California would be able to say thanks but no thanks to fish farms.
Some say that’s not too likely, though, because of the money involved. So they are pointing to legislation that can serve as a model for the federal law, which brings them, not surprisingly, to California. State Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Santa Cruz) has authored aquaculture legislation expressly requiring management techniques that minimize the damage from pollution, escapes, disease and so on. SB 768, which has already passed the Senate, was scheduled to go for a vote June 22 before an Assembly committee.
Simitian says there is opposition to his bill, but he sees it as being beneficial for the aquaculture industry and for the environmental community, which widely supports his bill.
“As I’ve tried to convey to the aquaculture industry, until there is a legally accepted [environmental impact report] prepared, there is no potential for the aquaculture industry, and until we get standards for proposed leases, everything will come under attack,” he says. “In the long run, environmental protections are not only good for the ocean but good for the aquaculture industry.”