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Proposal would allow fish farming off US coasts

Officials plan to send bill to Congress to establish regulations

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration, seeking to tap into one of the world's fastest-growing food industries, wants to allow fish farming up to 200 miles off the nation's coasts.

Citing pilot projects off New Hampshire, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico, the administration said yesterday that it was sending a bill to Congress to establish regulations for fish farming, known as aquaculture.

Currently, fish farming in the United States focuses largely on freshwater fish such as catfish, though there also are some ocean farms raising shellfish like mussels, clams, and oysters as well as shrimp and salmon.

In countries from Canada to China to Scotland to Thailand, farming of saltwater species such as salmon and shrimp has become increasingly common, with much of the catch sold in the United States.

Fish farming has drawn criticism from environmentalists, however.

Gerald Leape, vice president of marine conservation at the National Environmental Trust, issued a statement saying the proposal was ''riddled with problems." He said problems with fish farms include the discharge of solid waste, the use of pesticides, antibiotics, and other potentially harmful chemicals and the escape of farmed fish into the marine environment.

Seafood demand is expected to increase rapidly and officials of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say the United States has fallen behind other countries in farming fish. Currently the United States imports 70 percent of the seafood eaten here and 40 percent is from overseas fish farms.

''Today's action will create jobs and revenues for coastal communities and US businesses by allowing for the expansion of an underutilized industry," Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez said in a statement.

Currently, the United States does not have a regulatory structure in place to allow aquaculture operations in federal marine waters. The bill being sent to Congress would permit fish farming up to 200 miles off the coast, to be regulated by NOAA, a part of the Commerce Department.

''Our goal is to develop a sustainable aquaculture program that balances the needs of fishermen, coastal residents and visitors, seafood consumers, the environment, and the aquaculture industry," said NOAA administrator Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr.

NOAA said there are advantages to locating fish farms farther off shore including water depth, currents, and water quality. Pilot projects have used submerged cages for fish and long lines for mussels.

In Maine, Sebastian Belle of the Maine Aquaculture Association welcomed the federal proposals. Maine salmon-farming companies say they have complied with state regulations but they previously were sued over alleged violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

Currently, only 14 of the 45 permanent ocean pens where salmon grow to maturity off Maine's coast are being utilized because of a federal court ruling that required aquaculture companies to allow the sites to remain fallow, Belle said.

At the University of New Hampshire's Open Ocean Aquaculture program nine miles offshore, fish scientists are experimenting with farming cod, Atlantic halibut, haddock, summer flounder, and other species.

The UNH project hopes to show that these groundfish species can be raised offshore profitably without harming the environment. University officials have said it may be the savior for local commercial fishermen, whose days at sea are increasingly restricted to protect dwindling fish stocks.

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