To feed America's growing appetite for seafood, the Bush administration Tuesday proposed a dramatic expansion of fish farms into offshore federal waters to grow salmon, tuna and other fish that now mostly come in as imports.
The proposal is designed to help fish farming expand from a $1-billion to a $5-billion industry in the next 20 years, and to reduce America's reliance on imported seafood and shrink the U.S. trade deficit. More than 70% of seafood eaten in the United States is imported.
But the U.S. lacks regulations governing fish farming in federal waters, and the proposal left questions about how to protect America's remaining wild fish stocks, coastal waters and shorelines from disease, pollution and other threats that have bedeviled fish farms in other countries.
"We know there are issues, both environmental and economic, and we would like advice on solving these things," said Michael Rubino, manager of aquaculture programs for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "This is a beginning. We think there is a great future in offshore aquaculture."
Most U.S. fish farming focuses on freshwater catfish and tilapia, although ocean farms dotting the coasts raise shellfish such as oysters, mussels, clams and some shrimp.
The federal government and entrepreneurs want to get into the lucrative business of raising farmed salmon, sea bass and red snapper, as well as catching wild tuna and fattening them in oceanic feedlots.
"We're the only country that I know of that isn't into tuna culture," said Orlando Amoroso, president of the Southern California Commercial Fishing Assn. He says he is frustrated by bureaucratic delays. His group of 30 purse-seine vessels in San Pedro wants to set up a tuna ranch anchored to offshore oil platforms and supply the sardines to feed them.
The administration's proposal, given to Congress as recommended legislation, would put the secretary of Commerce, who oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in charge of issuing permits for fish farms in federal waters, which stretch from three miles to 200 miles offshore.
The legislation, hamstrung by years of internal debate, sets out a framework for expediting aquaculture permits through a maze of federal and state agencies. It leaves it up to the Commerce secretary to come up with specific environmental rules "if necessary."
Jane Lubchenco, a marine ecologist from Oregon State University, said she was disappointed with the "we'll deal with it later" approach to environmental concerns instead of spelling out safeguards.
"I'm not anti-aquaculture," Lubchenco said. "I think it's an increasingly important source of seafood.
"But it's important to do it right from the outset and not wait until we have the counterpart to the massive collapse of fisheries we've seen or massive pollution from hog farming."
She and other scientists were disappointed that federal officials dismissed their recommendations for specific standards. They point to a bill by California state Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) -- SB 768 -- that is being considered by the Legislature as a model for federal legislation. Among other things, it requires fish farms to guard against escaped fish, protect ocean habitat and minimize the use of drugs and chemicals in the farming process.
In recent years, scientists have chronicled problems of disease and parasites that spread from farms to wild fish, and of farmed fish escaping to compete or interbreed with wild cousins. They also have been studying the accumulation of chemicals, drugs, excess feed and fish waste in coastal waters.
Rebecca Goldberg, a biologist with the advocacy group Environmental Defense, and Rosamond Naylor, a Stanford economist, estimated in a recent paper that a $5-billion fish-farming industry in U.S. waters would produce as much nitrogen discharge as untreated sewage from 17.1 million people, or as much as the entire North Carolina hog industry.
Goldberg said she was dismayed that the proposed legislation didn't make any areas off limits to aquaculture, including those designated as national marine sanctuaries.
"It would be like putting industrial hog farms in national parks," she said.
Alaska, protective of its wild salmon fishery, has outlawed most types of fish farms in state waters. The administration's legislation would require that fish farms proposed for federal waters be consistent with state laws. But Rubino said it did not go as far as to say Alaska could block fish farms proposed for federal waters.
Commerce Department officials Tuesday cited a number of projects as success stories, such as growing mussels and halibut off New Hampshire, and other types of fish raised in submerged pens off the coasts of Puerto Rico and Hawaii.
All aquaculture is not the same, scientists say. Shellfish such as oysters and mussels clean seawater as they filter microscopic plankton from the ocean to feed themselves. Yet many of the high-value fish such as salmon, shrimp and cod that are grown in close corridors can pollute waters.
Scientists and fishermen say that raising carnivorous fish, such as salmon and cod, may not be the long-term solution for feeding the world. It can take as much as three pounds of wild fish, ground up and added to the feed, to produce one pound of farmed salmon.
"This creates a seafood deficit," Zeke Grader, head of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Assns. "It doesn't fix it."