U.S. seeks to boost aquaculture by allowing fish farms in deep ocean

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration wants to allow ocean
farming for shellfish, salmon and saltwater species in federal
waters for the first time, hoping to grab a greater share of the
$70 billion aquaculture market.

A plan being announced by Commerce Secretary Carlos
Gutierrez would let companies operate fish farms three miles to 200
miles offshore, but without some of the rules on size, season and
harvest methods that apply to other commercial fishermen.

Fish farms already operate on inland and coastal waters as far
as three miles into the ocean, which fall under state jurisdiction.

Environmental concerns have arisen about wastewater generated by
such operations. Gutierrez, however, said the administration's
proposal had safeguards and would permit states to ban fish farming
up to 12 miles off their coast.

'We believe we can do it in a way that is environmentally sound,
that makes sense for our economy. And given that we are importing
so much farm-raised fish, we might as well do it ourselves,''
Gutierrez told The Associated Press.

The plan, to be presented at the International Boston Seafood
Show, would help the $1 billion U.S. aquaculture industry roughly
double over the next few decades, he said.

Globally, the $70 billion aquaculture business accounts for
almost half the seafood consumed in the world today as wild fish
stocks decline.

About 70 percent of all the seafood eaten in the United States
comes from overseas, contributing "a trade deficit of about $9
billion in fish,'' Gutierrez said. Almost half is farm-raised.

Farming of saltwater species such as salmon and shrimp is common
in countries such as Thailand, Canada, China and Scotland. Much of
their catch is sold in the United States.

Until now, the U.S. industry has focused mainly on catfish,
tilapia and other freshwater fish. Some ocean farms raise shellfish
such as mussels, clams and oysters, as well as shrimp and salmon.

"We can do it a lot better than anyone else,'' Gutierrez said. "We believe that the power of the marketplace will be what determines the success here.''

Only three years ago the Environmental Protection Agency begin
regulating the more than 200 fish farms that generate wastewater
poured directly into U.S. waterways.

Fish farming companies also must consult with the Food and Drug
Administration, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the
Agriculture Department and other federal and state environmental

But the United States lacks regulations for aquaculture in
federal marine waters that extend three miles to 200 miles
offshore, where U.S. jurisdiction ends.

The administration wants Congress to pass legislation that would
let the Commerce Department issue 20-year permits to companies that
raise fish in deep ocean waters. The permits would exempt companies
from regulations that apply to other commercial fishermen and are
intended to restrict size, season and harvest methods.

The administration's proposal would:

• Authorize $4 million for the program, starting in October 2008.

• Require companies to post bonds or other financial guarantees
that they will remove the farms when operations end.

• Impose fines of up to $250,000 a day per violation and criminal
penalties of up to five years in prison and $500,000 in fines, or
$1 million for a group.

Gutierrez said the government "can be pretty objective'' about
regulating the aquaculture despite seeking to promote it.

ties in very well with reducing overfishing,'' he said. "This is
very much the future, and we need to get to work to be able to have
an adequate supply of fish.''

Some marine experts, however, say fish farming adds to
overfishing because most farms involve carnivorous fish that are
fed more fish protein than the farms produce. They say the farms
release pesticides, antibiotics and other chemicals, and cause
genetic contamination of wild fish.

"The growth of aquaculture is questionable, as we are using the
wild fish to grind up to feed the farmed fish,'' said Charles
Clover, author of "The End Of The Line,'' a book on overfishing.

"It promotes overfishing for forage fish, and it's putting the
farmed fish out with the wild fish — you don't really want the
diseases to get into the wild population,'' he said.

The National Aquaculture Association says on its Web site that
"legitimate concerns about aquaculture's environmental impact are
sometimes raised'' but that fish farming has boomed because it is
"environmentally compatible'' and U.S. consumers like eating
farmed seafood.

In January, a report from the Woods Hole Oceanographic
Institution and Pew Charitable Trusts recommended that Congress set
up a permitting system for offshore aquaculture that includes
environmental safeguards to protect fish species and water quality.

An earlier administration plan won little support in Congress
last year. Senate Democrats cited potential risks with pollution
and genetic mixing of farmed and wild fish.

Last month, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, proposed blocking
aquaculture in federal waters until Congress can study how it might
affect Alaska's wild salmon, halibut, sablefish and crab.