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Offshore aquaculture prompts enthusiasm and worries

DURHAM, N.H. - Fish farming in deep sea waters has long drawn interest from institutions and businesses in Maine and New Hampshire developing equipment and expertise for offshore operations, even as critics debate its environmental impact and practicality.

At Ocean Farm Technologies of Searsmont, which exports fish cages designed to withstand rough ocean conditions, company President Steve Page says Maine's experience with inshore salmon farming, combined with research at the University of New Hampshire and the University of Maine, gives the region an opportunity to be an industry leader.

"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 told the Maine Sunday Telegram.

Michael Rubino, who manages the aquaculture program for the National Marine Fisheries Service, says fish-farming interests elsewhere are adopting U.S. technology and promoting the industry aggressively.

For American policymakers, he said, "The biggest challenge is: 'Do we want to do this or not?'"

Fishermen and conservation groups express concerns.

One worry is that large-scale aquaculture of groundfish species could depress prices. Another is that oceanic fish-farming could disrupt the natural food chain: Harvesting smaller fish the commercial species prey on and using them for fish-farm meal would leave fewer for free-swimming fish to eat.

"It's not removing pressure from fish stocks," said attorney Roger Fleming with the Conservation Law Foundation, "but making things worse, by removing a forage system that our stocks need to recover."

Putting it another way, Portland fisherman Curt Rice said, "It's a very delicate balance. I think it's better to let Mother Nature rather than man feed the fish."

New Brunswick-based Cooke Aquaculture is raising 750,000 cod in pens in the Bay of Fundy and is ramping up production because it sees a strong market, said spokeswoman Nell Halle.

Conflicts with landowners limit the location of inshore pens, she said. Moving pens offshore has advantages, but may require more expensive equipment.

"It's an unexplored frontier the farther out you go," she said.

Great Bay Aquaculture, a commercial hatchery in Portsmouth, N.H., supplies Cooke Aquaculture with the juvenile cod for its ocean pens. George Nardi, the company's chief technical officer, said the company would like to establish a commercial offshore farm in the Gulf of Maine once technology becomes commercially viable.

Source: Boston.com

the Fish Site Editor

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