A little-known government agency meeting next week in Bay St. Louis, Miss., could decide to allow fish farming for the first time in federal waters. But the significant environmental concerns opponents raised to scuttle a vote three months ago still exist. The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council should reject the flawed plan and leave the matter to Congress.
The proposal would give companies 10-year permits to bring small fish hatched in onshore laboratories to giant cages near offshore rigs, such as gas and oil platforms. There, the fish would be raised to marketable size, harvested and returned to shore for sale.
While the practice may seem simple and benign, it is unscientific and therefore dangerous, argues George Leonard, director of Ocean Conservancy's aquaculture program. A Pew Oceans Commission report agrees. So do a collection of conservation and consumer organizations, fishing groups, seafood businesses and independent scientists.
Countries such as Chile and China that have allowed aquaculture have experienced serious environmental problems: pollution from fish manure, uneaten food and the antibiotics used to treat diseases among overcrowded fish; parasites and diseases infecting wild species that swim nearby; genetically modified species escaping and mating with wild fish; and marine mammals getting tangled in the pens.
What's more, some critics contend the Gulf Council is overstepping its authority. The Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Act, the federal law that grants the Gulf Council and its six regional sister agencies the authority to govern "the catching, taking, or harvesting of fish," doesn't give the councils authority to oversee fish farming, according to U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va. The chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee expressed that view in a letter to the Gulf Council and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Opponents see the Gulf Council's willingness to hear the proposal as a back-door means to permit fish farming after Congress has refused to act on such legislation in the last three years. Conservationists argue that before aquaculture is permitted, there must be enforceable federal regulations to address an array of potential economic and environmental catastrophes.
For the Gulf Council to rush ahead with unscientific policies would be foolish and shortsighted. The best approach is to let Congress — advised by the best scientists — establish a detailed and consistent policy for all federal waters. The health and benefits of the ocean and its fish should not be compromised by rash decisions.