Feds Unveil Plan for Offshore Gulf Fish Farms

This article was published in The Louisiana Weekly in the June 20, 2011 edition.

You probably already eat chicken or salmon raised in cramped, factory-like conditions, and in a couple of years you may see farmed drum, redfish, pompano or amberjack from the Gulf of Mexico in supermarkets. That's because the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with a June 9 announcement on aquaculture policy, laid the framework for introducing commercial farms in federal Gulf waters.

In ocean farming, fish are typically contained in cages--often big geodesic balls--until they can be harvested.

Aaron Viles, Deputy Director of the Gulf Restoration Network in New Orleans, doesn't like what he's heard so far, and said "the Louisiana coast and the Northern Gulf are highly productive regions for fish and fishermen, though they're still recovering from the BP drilling disaster. Offshore fish farming is asking for trouble." Intensive farms will pollute ocean waters with their waste, he predicted.

How ocean-factory cultivation might affect fish genetics is a worry, too. "Even if fish native to the Gulf are used, fish bred in captivity develop new traits and some of them will escape and alter the genetics of native fish," Viles said. "There's no reason to jeopardize our productive, Gulf fisheries by introducing these farms."

NOAA's work on a national farm plan in federal waters was prompted partly by the agency's need to evaluate a 2009 plan by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council to allow aquaculture from the end of state waters--at three miles offshore--to 200 miles outbuying , said Zach Corrigan, fish program director for Food & Water Watch in Washington, DC.

The Gulf council, established by the Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976, manages ocean resources in the so-called Exclusive Economic Zone, from where state waters terminate out to a 200-mile limit.

Corrigan cited problems with the Gulf council's 2009 farm plan, saying "it was roundly criticized by commercial and recreational fishermen and environmentalists because it had weak, environmental standards and limited, socioeconomic protections for fishing communities."

Nonetheless, NOAA announced this month that it's finalizing a national aquaculture policy, and that it will implement the Gulf council's plan for the region in the next year with few changes, Corrigan said. "The fact that NOAA's implementing the Gulf council plan, as is, shows that national policy, with its flowery language about promoting sustainable aquaculture, is a smokescreen for the federal agency to promote aquaculture--regardless of its impacts." In layman's terms, sustainable aquaculture means protecting wild species in a healthy, resilient ocean ecosystem.

Under details of the Gulf council's plan, ten-year permits for offshore fish-farming would be issued, subject to renewal every five years, with an annual limit on total, Gulf farmed fish output of 64 million pounds. Gulf species with the exception of shrimp and coral could be raised.

One of the many concerns about farming in federal waters is that waste can get into the ocean water plume and travel long distances, Corrigan said. "Waste is generated by fish urine, feces--which contain nitrogen and phosphorous--and by excess feed, antibiotics and other medications used in fish production," he noted.

In the Louisiana and Texas Gulf, several offshore pilot projects started by by universities and companies in the last two decades have fizzled during planning or implementation. Corrigan noted that a Seafish Mariculture, LLC finfish project, attached to oil and gas rigs in Texas, collapsed when fish cages were struck by storms and hurricanes in the late 1990's.

Meanwhile, you've probably noticed that South Louisiana restaurants have more Gulf shellfish than finfish on their menus. Ron Becker, Baton Rouge-based associate director of the Louisiana Sea Grant College Program, said "the tiny trickles of red snapper, red drum, speckled trout and other commercially available species that show up in restaurants and fish markets from time to time are expensive, unavailable most of the year, and totally inadequate to meet market demand. Most of the marine fish that we have access to are imported." Louisiana Sea Grant sponsors research and education programs on the state's coastal resources.

According to NOAA, 84% of seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported and half of that is from foreign aquaculture. The U.S. trade deficit in seafood has grown to over $9 billion annually. Only 5% of American seafood supplies are from domestic freshwater and marine aquaculture, with marine farming providing less than 1.5% of national supplies. A long list of Asian producers--China, India, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Japan--along with Chile and Norway, lead the U.S. in aquaculture.

Becker calls the Gulf council plan "very sound and comprehensive," in a view that clearly differs from critics of the proposal. He said "the plan provides in-depth analysis of every concern that has been raised about the possible consequences of permitting commercial aquaculture in the Gulf."

The Gulf council plan, for instance, "contemplated that hatcheries producing fingerlings for offshore aquaculture would use native, wild-caught fish as brood stock, and would change them out at frequent intervals," Becker said. Young fish are called fingerlings when they become finger size. "If caged fish did escape, the genetic effect of their interbreeding with wild populations would be negligible," he said.

As for stormy weather, Becker said "researchers have suggested that net pens be located in waters at least 200 feet deep so that they can be lowered well beneath the range of surface waves during hurricanes."

But Becker also said "everyone I know in the aquaculture research community believes that we need to approach fish farming cautiously and with due diligence--through demonstration projects that will give us an opportunity to work out the bugs and develop safe, reliable systems and practices. Because of permitting issues, we haven't had any opportunity for hands-on learning yet."

As for which companies might begin seeking permits, they'll have to be well capitalized because offshore fish firming is expensive, Corrigan said.

Becker said "it will take a couple million dollars just to do a decent, offshore demonstration project, assuming that you can find someone with an offshore platform to partner with, and it will probably take tens of millions of dollars to get into full-scale production. Operating companies will likely be venture capitalists, risk takers and oil-patch independents, who may team with European groups that already have experience in offshore aquaculture and related industries."

Becker continued, saying, "perhaps the few, remaining companies that comprise the U.S. menhaden industry will participate, since they know how to operate fleets of fishing vessels and, as suppliers of fish meal and oil, already work closely with international aquaculture interests." Dutch and Norwegian interests are dominant in international, offshore aquaculture, and might partner with U.S. investors.

Big agribusiness companies will participate in Gulf farming as feed suppliers, he said.

Meanwhile, over two days last week, the Louisiana Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries was unable to provide a comment on the prospect of offshore Gulf farming in federal waters, with an agency spokesperson in Baton Rouge saying "folks have been in the field."

The Louisiana seafood industry has long prided itself on the wild-caught aspect of the state's catch. In addition to the state's commercial fishermen, many residents hold recreational licenses and like to cast a line in the water on weekends. At the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, spokeswoman Ashley Roth said "the board represents all of the fishermen and processors in Louisiana, and each of those individuals have their own opinions on the issue" of offshore farming.

Local restaurants are stuck in the ongoing debate about buying farmed and imported versus wild-caught Gulf fish. Erica Papillion, Louisiana Restaurant Association spokeswoman, said "the LRA encourages its restaurants to serve fresh, Louisiana seafood, but we understand that it might not always be an option for some of them."