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Deep Blue Farms

June 25, 2005

This nation hasn't cleaned up the environmental problems caused by existing marine fish farms and now the Bush administration wants to grow the industry dramatically by giving it access to federal waters up to 200 miles from shore.

Some forms of aquaculture cause minimal damage or even help the environment. Freshwater tilapia farming has been generally sound, and the oysters cultivated along the shore actually filter pollutants from ocean water.

But these aren't the farms that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration seeks to expand. It's looking at the lucrative markets for salmon, tuna and other large marine fish. Farmed, nonnative salmon have escaped and bred with wild fish. Their feeding pens are sources of significant pollution from their waste, and breed diseases that infect wild sea life despite the medications they're fed.

The resulting salmon fillets get their pink hue from artificial coloring and are 50% higher in fat than wild salmon, yet a lower proportion of that fat contains the healthful omega 3s. They also contain more PCBs.

It's unclear whether the NOAA proposal would allow fish farms in federal waters in states such as Alaska, which has banned most of them in state waters. Alaska has gone to great lengths to protect its wild fish stocks, which is why its wild salmon are on the Monterey Bay Aquarium's list of environmentally friendly seafood choices -- and farmed salmon isn't. (For the full list, see www.mbayaq.org/cr/cr_seafoodwatch/sfw_regional.aspx.)

Putting fish farms farther out to sea, as NOAA proposes, could have benefits. The deeper waters would more quickly dilute and wash away pollutants.

But NOAA hasn't bothered partnering its industry-friendly proposal with regulations to protect the marine environment from associated damage. A better proposal by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) would set stricter fishing quotas, and free NOAA from the Commerce Department so it could decide ocean issues on scientific, not economic, grounds.

Her bill is not expected to go far, but nonetheless highlights an important point. NOAA this week proposed regulations that would actually weaken some protections against overfishing -- which, by causing the decline of fish populations, made fish farming attractive in the first place.

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