|Technicians from Snapperfarm, started by an Eckerd College dropout, stand on top of a cage 2 miles off Puerto Rico. They harvest cobia, which grow to a marketable 10 pounds in about a year and tolerate tight spaces. One cage holds up to 70,000 pounds.
The federal government now wants to fight fire with fire, using the Gulf of Mexico as a vast, offshore fish farming laboratory.
Regulations under consideration next month would allow underwater cages the size of an average McDonald's restaurant, spread in clusters over dozens of acres. With each cage holding 70,000 to 100,000 pounds of fish, just two 40-cage farms in deep water could produce as much fresh seafood as Florida's grouper fleet hauls ashore in a year.
"Experts believe that offshore has great potential for all kinds of sustainable aquaculture," reports the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on its Web site.
Several environmental groups are leery.
Nearshore farming dramatically dropped global salmon prices but also polluted surrounding waters. Penned-in fish sometimes needed antibiotics and antiparasite medicine to survive. Non-native species, like the "Atlantic salmon" raised in Chile and British Columbia, sometimes escaped into the wild.
The proposed offshore rules "contain no specific pollution standards. We don't know what kind of effluent is going to be acceptable," said Maryanne Cufone, of Food and Water Watch. "We don't know what likely chemicals will be needed to keep the fish healthy and keep the cages free of fouling organisms. This is a new industry the federal government is trying to promote, but there is no reason to rush."