MICHAEL COLLINS, Ventura County Star, January 18, 2010
Five years after former President George W. Bush’s administration first proposed allowing fish farming in federal waters, the Obama administration is set to come up with its own set of rules for offshore aquaculture, including deepwater fish farming.
The new rules, which are expected to spell out a permitting process for offshore aquaculture operations, could come as early as this summer, said Michael Rubino, manager of the aquaculture program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“We’re looking at this whole question of aquaculture in federal waters — how to go about it,” Rubino said.
Meanwhile, Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, has filed legislation that would establish a regulatory framework for aquaculture operations in federal waters, which begin three miles beyond the nation’s shores.
Capps’ proposal not only lays out the permitting process for offshore aquaculture facilities, but also contains environmental safeguards to see that any such projects pose a minimal risk to ocean ecology — a concern that derailed the Bush administration’s efforts.
“It is important to take a strong public health standard approach and make sure we have food safety and environmental protection as a basis for any kind of aquaculture project that would come up,” Capps said.
Ocean fish farming has long been seen by advocates as a way to guarantee a plentiful bounty of seafood even as a number of wild fish stocks decline. An estimated 80% of all edible seafood supplies in the United States is imported, and nearly half of all seafood is farmed, according to the San Diego-based Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute.
Right now, fish farming is limited to state waters, which begin at the shoreline and extend out for three miles.
In 2005, the Bush administration proposed allowing fish-farming operations up to 200 miles off the coast, which would have marked the first time such facilities would have been permitted in federal waters.
But that proposal, and subsequent plans, died in Congress in large part because of environmental concerns associated with fish farming, such as the discharge of waste and the use of pesticides, antibiotics and other potentially harmful chemicals.
Capps objected to the Bush plan because of the environmental issues and a belief that it was too closely tied to the fishing industry. “They wanted to go out of their way to see that industry was satisfied,” she said.
In contrast, the congresswoman’s aides say, her proposal offers a comprehensive policy that spells out the permitting process for aquaculture facilities while putting in place standards for environmental, public health and consumer protection.
Under the Capps plan, a special office to deal with offshore aquaculture would be established within the National Marine Fisheries Service at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.
The office would be responsible for implementing the aquaculture permitting and regulatory program, as well as conducting environmental impact studies for each region of the country. The studies would determine which locations are appropriate for offshore aquaculture, the type of fish suitable for farming in each region and the impact such projects would have on other marine life.
Aquaculture permits would be good for 10 years and could be renewed for subsequent 10-year periods. Permit holders would be required to report fish escapes, the prevalence of disease and parasites and the use of any antibiotics, pesticides or other drugs and chemicals.
By putting in place a comprehensive regulatory framework, “It will be very clear to all of the stakeholders what the rules of the game are,” Capps said.
President of Hubbs-SeaWorld, said Capps’ bill would create “a regulatory jumble” because some of the safeguards it would put in place already are covered by other federal agencies.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, for example, already regulate the use of antibiotics, he said.
The additional requirements would be so cumbersome that, if the proposal were to become law as written, “there won’t be an (aquaculture) industry in federal waters in the United States,” he said. “I won’t do it under the existing bill.’’
Hubbs-SeaWorld had wanted several years ago to set up an experimental fish farm on Platform Grace — an old oil rig about 10 miles off the coast of Ventura County — to raise California yellowtail, bluefin tuna and striped bass. The project eventually was abandoned, however.
The research institute also has put on hold plans for a commercial fish farm five miles off the San Diego coast in light of the Obama administration’s announcement that it is developing an aquaculture policy.
Capps’ office responded to his concerns by saying the congresswoman’s proposal attempts to legislate “a common sense national framework for aquaculture” and that it is the result of a collaboration with environmental and consumer groups, the scientific community, the aquaculture industry and others.
The congresswoman will continue to work with all stakeholders as the process moves forward, said her spokeswoman, Emily Spain.
Rubino said NOAA has no comment on the Capps proposal, other than to reiterate that the administration prefers a national approach to aquaculture instead of a region by region approach.