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American consumers, like others elsewhere in the world, are gluttons for fresh fish. This demand is responsible for the overfishing and related problems that are wiping out vast numbers of wild fish in oceans around the globe. The United States has been forced to import 80 percent of the seafood Americans eat from countries that have fish farms.

Today, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is meeting in Mobile, Ala., to consider a draft proposal that for the first time would permit fish farms in federal waters in the gulf. But there are risks to consider that have been raised by conservationists and others, and the more responsible approach would be for Congress to adopt uniform standards.

If the council approves the plan, companies would be awarded 10-year permits to bring small fish hatched in onshore laboratories to industrial-size cages near offshore energy structures, such as gas and oil platforms. In those deep waters, the fish would be raised to marketable size, harvested and brought to shore for sale. The move would represent the first time offshore aquaculture would be permitted in federal waters, which extend between 3 miles and 200 miles offshore. Now fish farms are permitted only in state waters.

The Ocean Conservancy and other organizations rightly argue that to prevent disasters, Congress should establish enforceable national standards before offshore aquaculture is approved. In other countries, such as China and Chile, where aquaculture is practiced, there have been fish escapes, habitat destruction, pollution, spread of disease to wild fish and genetic mixing of cage-raised and wild species.

George H. Leonard, director of Ocean Conservancy's aquaculture program, said the Gulf Council may not have the authority to approve and regulate fish farming in federal waters. He said fish farming is not spelled out in the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Act, which provides for the conservation and management of the nation's fisheries. The Gulf Council's move is seen as an unscientific, back-door route to offshore aquaculture after Congress has refused to act on deep-ocean legislation twice during the last three years.

Leonard is calling for caution: "Without national standards in place, this sets a dangerous precedent for the other seven fishery councils to follow. One would hope this does not become a race to the bottom to attract investment and get cages in the water. Seafood consumers and businesses increasingly want a race to the top, where seafood meets environmental standards."

Before aquaculture is permitted in our oceans, Congress should establish a coordinated set of enforceable federal regulations to address the many potential environmental and economic problems. The council should postpone its vote, because properly protecting the wild fish and their existing habitat has to be a highest priority.