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FISH FIGHT: Congress mulls expansion, regulation of offshore farming

WASHINGTON As environmentalists and industrialists spar over the controversial practice of fish farming, the battle lines have been redrawn on Capitol Hill as Congress considers legislation that would allow for expanded aquaculture operations in federal waters.

That legislation, drafted by the Bush administration, would allow the government to regulate and grant permits for aquaculture facilities within the Exclusive Economic Zone, an area that starts three nautical miles off the coast, where state jurisdiction ends, and extends to 200 nautical miles.

Administration officials, responding in part to fish and shellfish farmers in Florida and other coastal states, have noted that the United States is falling behind in global fish and shellfish farming, with an estimated $8 billion seafood trade deficit.

Industry leaders meeting at a conference in Washington late last month said that allowing open-water aquaculture is vital as growing demand for seafood products continues to drive a booming industry in global markets.

Domestic production is not enough to meet this need, and global markets have seized on this opportunity, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said. He hailed the bill as "an important step to increasing our supply of home-grown seafood."

According to Commerce Department statistics, about 80 percent of the seafood consumed in the country is imported, of which 40 percent is farmed. China accounts for nearly 70 percent of the $70 billion global aquaculture industry. In contrast, North America has a 1.3 percent slice.

At present, there is no clear federal authority allowing aquaculture in federal waters. The regulatory uncertainty is a major barrier to the development of the industry in this country, as investors are squeamish about pouring capital into a potentially high-risk venture.

Industry leaders claim that the future of the industry hinges on the bill, the National Offshore Aquaculture Act of 2007.

"Without a regulatory system in place specifically for federal waters, then we're finding ourselves at an impasse," said spokeswoman Stacey Viera of the National Fisheries Institute, the nation's leading trade organization advocating for the fish and seafood industry.

However, Florida officials and fish farmers say any effect that the bill will have on the state's $75 million aquaculture industry - which includes more than fish farms - is likely to be limited. This is because most of the state's fish farms mainly produce freshwater species such as tilapia and catfish and saltwater shellfish.

In Florida, there were 359 aquaculture businesses in 2005, the most recent year for which figures were available. The condition of fish farming in Florida in some ways mirrors that of the rest of the country, where the $1 billion aquaculture industry is dominated by freshwater aquaculture production, which far outpaces saltwater aquaculture.

"If it passes, great," said Joel Shireman, who raises catfish on his farm in Hampton. "But if it doesn't, I sure won't lose any sleep over it."

He said he had very little in common with marine fish farmers. "Our customers are mainly local redneck types who want catfish, and I don't think they'll switch."

Paul Zajicek, a biological administrator at the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, cited the logistics and practicalities involved in setting up huge offshore operations as factors that would make it "fairly prohibitive."

In addition, the risks and costs associated with Florida's shallow waters and the presence of red tide, an algal bloom that can kill fish, make it even harder for would-be offshore aquaculturists.

"There's going to be some real limitations to this," he said. "It's kind of unlikely for Florida that we would see many of those operations down here."

Industry advocates cite the findings from numerous health studies that have declared the myriad health benefits of eating seafood in general as reason for pushing the bill through. However, environmentalists and other groups have long opposed any such legislation, raising concerns over sustainability issues, pollution and other harmful impacts on the environment.