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Gulf of Maine at center of new fish-farm debate

DURHAM, N.H. - With the federal government now pushing hard for the development of offshore fish farms, the Gulf of Maine is playing a central role in the debate over whether farming in deep ocean waters is environmentally safe and economically viable.

SeaStation cages like this one photographed near Hawaii are being used by University of New Hampshire researchers to grow cod several miles off the New Hampshire coast.

The gulf is home to some of the world's most turbulent seas and nastiest weather -- a perfect testing ground for developing high-tech cages and automated feeding equipment that can stand up to a world-class beating. Several institutions and businesses in Maine and New Hampshire are developing equipment and expertise for offshore operations.

The political environment is equally turbulent. Fishermen -- many of whom are already struggling for economic survival -- worry that large-scale aquaculture of groundfish species such as cod or flounder could depress the prices of wild fish. Conservation groups, who have long viewed near-shore aquaculture as an environmental threat, see many of the same problems with offshore sites, such as concentration of fish waste in one area.

Other countries are adopting technology developed in the United States and aggressively promoting the industry, said Michael Rubino, who manges the aquaculture program for the National Marine Fisheries Service. The issue for American policymakers, he said, is whether the United States will participate or sit on the sidelines. "The biggest challenge is: 'Do we want to do this or not?'"


Maine's experience with inshore salmon farming, combined with aquaculture research being conducted at the University of New Hampshire and the University of Maine, gives the region an opportunity to be an industry leader, said Steve Page, president of Ocean Farm Technologies of Searsmont. The company manufactures spherical cages well-suited for ocean conditions and sold overseas.

"There is a real synergy between what's going on the universities and the experience of the salmon industry that gives our state a huge head start in terms of commercial-size aquaculture business," he said.

At a time when many wild fisheries are in trouble and demand for fish is increasing, the aquaculture industry can meet that demand in a way that doesn't hurt the environment or wild fish stocks, proponents argue. Moving fish farms offshore, they say, can avoid conflicts with landowners, mitigate environmental impacts and provide the fish with more stable habitat.

Source: Portland Press Herald