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Consumer Organization Attacks Report

US - Food & Water Watch, a US consumer advocacy organization, has panned a new report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on offshore aquaculture - the industrial production of fish using cages located in open ocean waters.

Legislation to create a national programme for offshore aquaculture has been discussed in both the US House of Representatives and the Senate, but not approved.

"This report is nothing more than a desperate effort by NOAA to pressure Congress into authorizing a bill for a national offshore aquaculture program in our oceans, " said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch.

"We believe real facts clearly show that ocean fish farming could cause serious economic and environmental problems for our country."

NOAA's report contends that the practice of cramming thousands of fish in cages between about three and 200 miles from shore would, among other things, bring fiscal benefits and dramatically reduce US reliance on foreign seafood products.

However, a report released just last month by the independent US Government Accountability Office on the very same topic, indicated otherwise. It showed that "significant barriers still exist in the development of an environmentally safe offshore aquaculture industry," according to a statement from the US House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee. Representative Nick Rahall, Chair of that Committee, requested the GAO report in 2007.

The evidence that ocean fish farming is problematic goes beyond the GAO findings. The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, one of eight regional councils Congress established to help manage US fisheries, is drafting regulations to allow ocean fish farming in their region, with support from NOAA. Their very own plan concedes that the increased supply of farmed fish could decrease the prices that fishermen get for their catch. That in turn could harm the economies of coastal communities that depend on fishing and related activities.

In a mad rush to get any big legislative victory, the Bush Administration and NOAA are promoting development of the offshore aquaculture industry, while ignoring trends in the global seafood trade.

The United States exports more than 70 per cent of its wild-caught and farmed seafood.

At the same time, we import cheaper, often lower quality seafood from countries such as China and Thailand for US consumers to eat. These places have recently had questionable food safety records. Meanwhile, Japan and Europe, known for high seafood safety standards, receive nearly half of US exports.

This means that if offshore aquaculture is allowed in the US commercially, likely trends will remain the same - US producers will export the majority of ocean farmed fish for higher dollar returns, and consumers here will still eat a lot of imported – and potentially unsafe – farmed fish.

Offshore aquaculture also could cause problems for our marine environment. For example, fish waste, uneaten fish feed, antibiotics used to maintain the health of fish crowded into the farm pens and chemicals that prevent organisms from growing on the nets and cages can pollute the seafloor and surrounding ocean ecosystem.

"Little is known about the assimilative capacity of the marine environment for these pollutants," concluded a report commissioned by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

"Pollution from a greatly expanded [aquaculture] industry could have significant effects locally and regionally."

Parasites and disease can spread from fish farms to wild species. In British Columbia, the Pacific Fisheries Resource Conservation Council found that fish farms increased the number of parasitic sea lice and likely caused the collapse of pink salmon in the Broughton Archipelago in 2002.

Farmed fish, which can be behaviorally, physically and even genetically different from similar wild fish, escape their pens.

Once out in the wild, they could mate with native species, spawning inferior wild fish that could be more susceptible to disease or unable to survive well in the wild. In the alternative, some escaped farmed fish may be super fish – bred to grow bigger, faster and may out-compete wild fish for increasingly scarce food resources, mates and habitat.

Either of these scenarios could lead to fewer – and possibly less desirable – wild fish for fishermen to catch and people to eat.

"NOAA is the agency tasked with conserving and managing our living marine resources. Rather than wasting time and taxpayer dollars to crafting reports trying to justify a national program for offshore aquaculture, our government needs to spend time ensuring strong US fisheries and clean, green and safe methods of seafood production for US consumers," Hauter said.

Ellen Hardy

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