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Economic gains from gulf fish farms and pollution fears compete

Technicians from Snapperfarm, a fish-farming operation in Puerto Rico, stand atop a cage 2 miles offshore to harvest cobia from a 62-foot-diameter, ocean-based aquapod.

Ocean Farm Technologies

Technicians from Snapperfarm, a fish-farming operation in Puerto Rico, stand atop a cage 2 miles offshore to harvest cobia from a 62-foot-diameter, ocean-based aquapod.

Our growing appetite for seafood is often sated by inexpensive salmon, shrimp and other species grown in pens and cages close to shore.

Now federal regulators are poised to expand fish farming to open ocean, with the Gulf of Mexico as an experimental laboratory.

Cages would be huge and submersible, so hurricanes could blow over them without damage.

Niche commercial species like cobia, amberjack and redfish could reach widespread distribution, just like farm-raised tilapia exploded out of obscurity a few years ago.

But as is always the case with fish matters, the move has stirred controversy.

Some fishermen worry that industrial farms that could raise 1-million pounds a year will undercut prices for wild fish.

Environmental groups point to pollution and disease problems that have plagued near-shore fish farms in the past.

A letter signed by 112 groups complains that gulf fishing managers are making an illegal end-run around Congress, which has yet to agree on national offshore standards.

"It's clear that aquaculture has to be a part of the long-term seafood supply solution," said George Leonard, director of aquaculture for the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental group. "But it has to be done in an environmentally acceptable way that does not add to the burdens we are putting on our marine and coastal systems."

The issue should come to a head this week, when the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meets in Mississippi. The council, which regulates commercial and recreational fishing in federal waters, has indicated a willingness to allow fish farming. A final vote on allowing permits is scheduled for Thursday.

The vote follows several years of planning and lobbying by the Bush administration and Commerce Department. About 80 percent of seafood eaten by Americans is imported, and much of that is farmed.

Domestic fish-farming would create jobs and help the U.S. promote food safety, advocates say.

In recent years, some shipments of foreign shrimp and Asian catfish have been tainted with cancer-causing chemicals and hormones.

"These will be the strictest regulations in the world,'' said Joe Hendrix, a Houston-based aquaculture consultant who is one of the gulf management council's 17 members. "Other parts of the world are wide open. We are bringing in stuff and we don't know what people are doing to those fish.''

Among other things, the council permitting plan requires that farms raise only species that are native to the gulf, minimizing genetic dilution and competition from exotic species when fish escape from pens, as they inevitably do.

If offshore fish farms do come to the gulf, Texas, Louisiana and parts of the Florida Panhandle are the most likely locations.

Regulators want plenty of room beneath enclosures to allow currents to disperse excess feed and fecal matter. Early salmon farms in Norway and other locales concentrated so many nutrients below shallow pens that life on the bottom died from oxygen starvation.

Offshore cages, as large as a McDonald's and holding up to 100,000 fish, would probably be anchored in at least 150 feet of water, if not 200.

The continental shelf in the western gulf slopes away quickly enough that farms could locate only 10 or 15 miles from shore, allowing companies to ferry workers, fingerlings and harvested fish back and forth economically.

Off western Florida, the ocean bottom remains relatively shallow for 50 miles or more, so fish farming makes less economic sense here.

Support for aquaculture is strong on the council, said New College professor Julie Morris, one of its members. She's more of a fence-sitter.

"We will never be able to meet the need for seafood with wild, caught fish," she said, "but I have great concerns about pollution and escape" and whether gulf currents are strong enough to prevent nutrient buildup.

"I've been skeptical from the get-go, but I think we've put in some strong language about prohibiting genetically modified animals.

"I'm more comfortable with it than I was in the beginning."

Economic gains from gulf fish farms and pollution fears compete 01/25/09 [Last modified: Monday, January 26, 2009 12:22pm]
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