WASHINGTON, D.C--The Bush Administration submitted a bill to both houses of Congress today that, if passed, could expand fish farming beyond state waters up to about 320 kilometers offshore. Making the announcement at a press conference here, NOAA administrator Conrad Lautenbacher said the bill will provide for the first time the necessary authority to the Secretary of Commerce to issue permits for fish farms within the nation's exclusive economic zone.
Offshore fish farms consist of gigantic submerged cages used to raise millions of fish. According to Lautenbacher, the U.S currently lacks a system for setting up such farms in federal marine waters, which lie about 5 km offshore. While other countries have developed their offshore aquaculture industry, the U.S has run up a big trade deficit in seafood, he says. "Nearly 70% of our seafood is imported, and about 40% of it comes from farms, costing us about $40 billion," says Lautenbacher. Large offshore fish farms, it is hoped, will help reduce this deficit and meet a growing global demand for seafood, which is projected to more than triple by 2025.
The push towards mega fish factories, though, has some states such as Alaska worried about the potential effect on local fishing communities. Lautenbacher says the bill is flexible and could allow states to opt out. And Bill Hogarth, director of NOAA Fisheries Service, says the farms will provide new jobs. "When they see the benefits," he says, "nobody will opt out."
Still, finding money to set up and run the permitting system could be a problem. NOAA senior scientist Paul Sandifer says the initial $3 million required for the first year is covered. But more money will be needed if the project moves ahead.
Aside from funding, concerns about the environmental impact of the fish farms--such as problems with fish waste and sea lice--could hinder the project. According to Mike Hirschfield, chief scientist at Washington, D.C-based Oceana, "there should not be any aquaculture in the exclusive economic zone until there is legislation to ensure all environmental concerns are addressed." But Richard Langan, director of the Cooperative Institute for New England Mariculture and Fisheries, a group created by NOAA and the University of New Hampshire, dismisses such concerns. "Our simulations suggest that the environmental impact from these fish farms will not be significant," he says.
NOAA Aquaculture Information Center