Are Regulations for Sustainable Fish Farming Just a Red Herring?

Ocean fish farms, enormous submerged cages filled with highly concentrated groups of live fish, are essentially the factory farms of the sea.
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Last month the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued draft guidelines for deep water ocean fish farming with the stated goal of supporting sustainable practices. However, the primary purpose appears to be creating a regulatory structure to encourage rapid expansion of ocean fish farming. According to the agencies' joint press release, the new policy, which they plan to finalize by the end of this year, will "increase the U.S. supply of healthy seafood, create jobs in coastal and other communities [and] spur innovation in technology."

This is troubling, because fish farming is exploding worldwide and ocean fish farms are, essentially, the factory farms of the sea, raising many of the same environmental concerns that beef, poultry and swine CAFOs arouse. According to the nonprofit advocacy group Food and Water Watch (FWW), NOAA wants "to establish a $5 billion fish farming industry" that "could emit waste equal to the untreated sewage of about 17.1 million people -- over twice the population of New York City."

Ocean fish farms are enormous submerged cages filled with highly concentrated groups of live fish. Uneaten fish feed, fish waste, antibiotics and chemicals used in this "farming" process are all released directly into the ocean. Farmed fish often escape into open waters, where they can breed with and spread disease to wild fish.

There is certainly an argument for regulating ocean fish farming because farmed fish now comprise the majority of fish eaten by people, a trend likely to grow as wild fish stocks continue to dwindle. While much of the farmed fish currently consumed are fresh water species grown in tanks on land, the pressure to move fish farming off-shore is immense because the potential profit, driven by consumer demand for salt water species, is enormous.

However, just as is the case with other animal products, unbridled consumer demand for fish bears examination. There is a widespread misconception, supported by multi-million dollar agribusiness marketing campaigns, that more food -- and in the case of fish and meat, more protein-rich food -- is needed to feed a growing world population. However, the explosion in the consumption of meat and fish is actually due, not to population increases, but to the fact that individuals in the most well-off nations are eating far more animal protein (and far more food, in general) than has been the case throughout human history and far more than is considered healthy by any nutritional standard.

As Joel Bourne reported in National Geographic back in 2009, in China the amount of pork consumed per person per year rose 45 percent in 12 years. In the United States, the amount of chicken eaten per person each year rose from 21 pounds to 86 pounds between 1950 and 2005, while the amount of beef scarfed down by the average American rose from 44 pounds to 65 pounds annually, according to the Humane Society. Similarly, average fish consumption per person rose from 22 pounds in the 1960s to more than 36 pounds per person in 2005 and is doubtless higher today. Yet, while meat and fish production and consumption continue to grow, both hunger and obesity are on the rise, belying the idea that this growth in consumption is due to an increasing world population. Put simply, more people who can afford to are simply eating too much.

Given this consumption picture, and coupled with what we know about the environmental costs of ocean fish farming, any regulations aimed primarily at expanded factory farming in the world's oceans warrant scrutiny. That's why last spring U.S. Senator David Vitter of Louisiana introduced a

" target="_hplink">bill to delay further development of ocean fish farming for several years while requiring the government to collect and analyze information about the potential effects on the environment, fishermen and coastal communities. However, that bill gathered no cosponsors and has not been reintroduced during the current session. Meanwhile, last August a federal district court ruled that a lawsuit to stop ocean fish farming cannot go forward in the absence of federal regulations. Those regulations have now been published in draft form. Public comments are being accepted through April 11.

Originally published on ecokvetch, the blog of the Park Slope Food Coop environmental committee.

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