Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Memorial for Snooty the manatee, postponed because of Irma, to be held Sunday


    A public memorial to celebrate the life of 69-year-old Snooty the manatee will be held at the South Florida Museum on Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.

    Snooty , the world's most celebrated manatee, begs for another slice of apple in his pool in the Parker Manatee Aquarium at the South Florida Museum in Bradenton in 2008. Snooty was 60 then. [Times 2008]
  2. Residents wade through a flooded road after the passing of Hurricane Maria, in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, Friday, September 22, 2017. Because of the heavy rains brought by Maria, thousands of people were evacuated from Toa Baja after the municipal government opened the gates of the Rio La Plata Dam. [Associated Press]
  3. NFL commissioner, players' union angrily denounce Trump comments on national anthem


    SOMERSET, N.J. — The National Football League and its players' union on Saturday angrily denounced President Donald Trump for suggesting that owners fire players who kneel during the national …

    President Donald Trump walks off the stage after he speaks at campaign rally in support of Sen. Luther Strange, Friday, Sept. 22, 2017, in Huntsville, Ala. [Associated Press]
  4. New earthquake, magnitude 6.1, shakes jittery Mexico


    MEXICO CITY — A strong new earthquake shook Mexico on Saturday, causing new alarm in a country reeling from two still-more-powerful quakes this month that have killed nearly 400 people.

    Locals play pool at a venue in Mexico City's La Condesa neighborhood, Friday, Sept. 22, 2017, four days after the 7.1 earthquake. The upscale Mexico City neighborhood was one of the hardest hit, with more than a half-dozen collapsed buildings in the immediate vicinity. The few Condesa residents who ventured out Friday night said they were anxious for relief from an anguishing week. [Associated Press]
  5. Tests show North Korea earthquake not caused by nuclear test


    SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea's weather agency said a magnitude 3.2 earthquake was detected in North Korea on Saturday close to where the country recently conducted a nuclear test, but it assessed the quake as natural.

    People watch a TV news program reporting North Korea's earthquake, at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017. South Korea's weather agency said an earthquake was detected in North Korea on Saturday around where the country recently conducted a nuclear test, but it assessed the quake as natural. The signs read " The weather agency said a magnitude 3.0 earthquake was detected in North Korea." [Associated Press]