Aquaculture for all

Waves of opposition to aquaculture bill

PUERTO RICO - Two miles off the coast of the Puerto Rican island of Culebra, Brian O'Hanlon is farming fish 90 feet below the surface. He uses special cages capable of holding almost 800,000 gallons of water to raise cobia, a mild-tasting white fish that often ends up in sushi or sashimi.

O'Hanlon runs Snapperfarm Inc., an aquaculture company, or offshore fish farm. Right now, it produces 50 tons of fish a year, but O'Hanlon wants to see that grow to 750 tons. With 68 acres of room, the only thing stopping him is bureaucratic red tape.

Under current law, no one agency regulates aquaculture in federal waters; depending on the type of project, a permit may be necessary from the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Marine Corps of Engineers or all of them.

Some of the permits O'Hanlon has applied for have been in the works for five years. If he cannot get what he needs soon, he said his company might move to Latin America.

And that is exactly what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Fisheries Institute do not want to see happen. The agency and the trade group see offshore aquaculture as a way to increase the domestic food supply. Rep. Nick J. Rahall (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Committee on Natural Resources, introduced the bill at the request of the Bush administration on April 24.

Allyson L. Groff, communications director for the committee, stressed that Rahall is not necessarily a proponent of the National Offshore Aquaculture Act of 2007. In a statement Rahall submitted to the record, he stated, "While I do not agree with many provisions in this legislation, I think it is important for Congress to take a serious look at marine aquaculture and see if it is possible to establish a program that makes economic and environmental sense."

The bill would make the US Department of Commerce the sole regulator for the fledgling industry. The agency would establish environmental requirements largely through consulting with other federal agencies and coastal states to identify what laws are already in place. Commerce would also be able to issue more permits for offshore farms, in hopes of producing more fish in U.S. waters. Currently, 80 percent of the seafood Americans consume is imported, according to Commerce statistics, and at least half of that is farmed.

The bill hasn't been a universal hit within the fishing world. Environmental groups and a slew of local fishermen's associations that make up the Wild Fish Network say it's weak in terms of regulation. Thirty-one organizations, most of which are members of the network, echoed that sentiment in a written appeal to Del. Madeleine Z. Bordallo (D-Guam), chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Oceans.

"We strongly oppose the bill because it appears to promote aquaculture - in particular, ocean fish farming - at the expense of the marine ecosystems and fishing communities," they argued. Rahall's legislation does not contain adequate standards to eliminate or minimise the diseases that wild fish could catch from farmed fish, the groups told Bordallo, nor does it address how the aquaculture industry would ensure that the food and chemicals used for the farmed fish do not harm wild fish.

Source: The Politico