Bush bill would open federal waters to aquaculture

WASHINGTON, DC, June 8, 2005 (ENS): To meet a growing demand for seafood, the Bush administration is proposing to open federal waters to fish farming. A bill sent to Congress Tuesday grants the Secretary of Commerce authority to issue permits for marine aquaculture operations in federal waters, which cover about 3.4 million square miles from three to 200 miles off the coasts of the United States.

The measure "will create jobs and revenues for coastal communities and U.S. businesses by allowing for the expansion of an underutilized industry," said Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.

"This legislation fulfills a promise President [George W.] Bush made to the American people in his Ocean Action Plan, and we urge Congress to take action in support of this bill," he said.

The United States does not have a regulatory structure in place to allow aquaculture operations in federal marine waters, and Americans are eating farmed seafood imported from countries such as Canada, Thailand, China, Ecuador, Chile and Mexico.

The U.S. seafood deficit amounts to about $7 billion annually and the U.S. currently imports more than 60 percent of its fish and shellfish.

"Our goal is to develop a sustainable aquaculture program that balances the needs of fishermen, coastal residents and visitors, seafood consumers, the environment, and the aquaculture industry," said Conrad Lautenbacher, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

"Today's announcement starts a public process through which all our stakeholders and constituents will have an opportunity to provide guidance as we begin developing the guidelines and regulations for offshore aquaculture ventures," Lautenbacher said.

The legislation is consistent with a recommendation made by the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy in its final report last September.

The Commission, a congressionally mandated body appointed by President Bush, recommended that Congress "amend the National Aquaculture Act to designate NOAA as the lead federal agency for implementing a national policy on environmentally and economically sustainable marine aquaculture."

Through a new Office of Sustainable Marine Aquaculture, the Commission said, "NOAA should develop a single, multi-agency federal permitting process for the industry that ensures that aquaculture facilities meet all applicable environmental standards and protects the sustainability and diversity of wild stocks."

The measure sent to Congress, known as the National Offshore Aquaculture Act of 2005, provides for consultation among federal agencies that considers risks to and impacts on natural fish stocks; marine ecosystems; biological, chemical and physical features of water quality and habitat; marine mammals, other forms of marine life, birds, and endangered species; and other features of the environment, before a permit is issued and during operation of the aquaculture facility.

Permit holders may have to meet environmental requirements for monitoring, data archiving, and reporting.

The Secretary of Commerce may protect the environment by ordering temporary or permanent relocation of offshore aquaculture sites, or a moratorium on additional sites within a prescribed area, the bill says.

And while the facilities are to be located in federal waters, the bill provides that the law of the nearest adjacent coastal state is declared to be the law of the United States, and will apply to any permitted offshore aquaculture facility.

Aquaculture facilities will share federal waters with a whole range of other users and under the bill must be compatible with the use of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone "for navigation, fishing, resource protection, recreation, national defense (including military readiness), mineral exploration and development, and other activities."

Through public rulemaking, NOAA will establish criteria for aquaculture sites to avoid conflicts with shipping and other uses and to minimize impacts on the environment.

Environmentalists who have had experience with open net cage aquaculture find there are many problems associated with it.

The David Suzuki Foundation, based in British Columbia, Canada where aquaculture is practiced, has studied fish farming using open net cages for years. The foundation warns that sewage from such fish farms pollutes surrounding waters, and that drugs, including antibiotics, are required to keep farmed fish healthy.

"Worldwide, open net-cage fish farming industries use publicly owned coastal waters to support what are essentially intensive private feedlot operations that dump drug-laced sewage into the ocean," the foundation says.

Escapes of farmed fish, which are distinct genetically, threaten native wild fish, says the foundation and other environmental groups.

Instead of net cages, the foundation says the fish farming industry should use safe, fully enclosed systems that trap wastes and keep fish from escaping.

And farmed fish are fed pellets made from other fish - depleting other fish species on a global scale, the foundation points out.

"Salmon, for example, are carnivores, and are fed pellets made from other fish," the Suzuki Foundation explains. "Farmed salmon actually represent a net loss of protein in the global food supply as it takes from two to five kilos of wild fish to grow one kilo of salmon.

"Highly nutritious fish like herring, mackerel, sardines and anchovy are used to produce the feed for farmed salmon, which is essentially luxury fare for the North American, European and Japanese markets," the foundation says.

At the same time that the Bush administration is clearing the way for aquaculture in federal waters, wild salmon recovery programs are being starved of funding, salmon advocates say.

There are 26 West coast salmon and steelhead populations currently listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Yet, the House Appropriations Committee Tuesday approved a spending bill that would cut a key salmon recovery fund by 44 percent.

The Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund, which helps fund state and local salmon and steelhead recovery efforts in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, and Alaska, was cut by the House to $50 million for fiscal year 2006, down from $89 million in fiscal year 2005, and $110 million as recently as fiscal year 2002.

The White House budget proposal requested $90 million for the Coastal Recovery Fund, while conservation groups have called for increasing its funding to $200 million.

Conservationists argue that a substantial increase is needed if new recovery plans intended to restore imperiled wild salmon stocks to healthy, fishable levels are to be effective.

“Salmon need healthy habitat to recover, and protecting and restoring their habitat requires more federal commitment, not less,” said Michael Garrity of American Rivers.

On Monday, three Republican Congressional Representatives, C.L. “Butch” Otter, of Idaho, and Doc Hastings and Cathy McMorris of Washington, attended a hearing in Clarkston, Washington, where they promoted voluntary restoration measures while criticizing the efforts of conservationists, fishing businesses, and Indian tribes to restore the lower Snake River and its salmon by removing four federal dams.

“On some rivers like the lower Snake, removing outdated dams is necessary to recover salmon, but on most West coast rivers the kind of funding provided by the Coastal Recovery Fund is what salmon need,” said Garrity. “Salmon are essential to our Northwest way of life. Communities up and down the West coast will benefit if the Senate restores funding for habitat restoration at least to last year’s levels."

Several Pacific salmon recovery plans are expected to be finalized before the end of this year. Recovery plans are intended not only to prevent extinction, but to restore salmon to the point at which the protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act are no longer necessary.

Implementing new recovery plans for Puget Sound and the Columbia Basin is likely to require hundreds of millions of dollars per year in new federal, state, local, and tribal funding.

The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy recommended paying for the recovery of species and ecosystems by establishing an Ocean Policy Trust Fund, based on unallocated revenues from offshore oil and gas development and new offshore activities, such as aquaculture.

"New offshore activities, such as renewable energy, aquaculture, or bioprospecting, may also produce revenues in time, and these should be added to the Fund," the Commission said.

"Establishment of, and distributions from, the Ocean Policy Trust Fund should be kept separate from any decisions about whether a particular offshore activity should be authorized and permitted," the Commission said.

The Bush administration's aquaculture bill makes no mention of where revenues derived from permitting aquaculture facilities might be directed.

NOAA says that research funded by the agency over the past decade shows that offshore aquaculture can work well.

Currently, aquaculture pilot projects - using submerged cages for finfish and submerged longlines for mussels off New Hampshire, Hawaii and Puerto Rico - are showing good production and environmental results. NOAA said, "The projects demonstrate that proper placement of sites can minimize environmental concerns."

The U.S. Offshore Aquaculture Act Information is found at: http://www.noaa.gov/aquaculture

Questions or Comments: editor@ens-news.com

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2005. All Rights Reserved.

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