That the U.S. government agency responsible for managing the nations fisheries falls within the agency responsible for international trade is painfully clear with Thursday’s announcement that NOAA will finalize regulations for open ocean aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico. The press material accompanying the announcement leads with the Commerce Department objective of closing the seafood trade gap, not with the importance of managing a stressed natural resource, fisheries, or ensuring the health of an ecological and biological wonder, the world’s oceans. Unfortunately, large open-ocean fish farms are not the solution to reducing the amount of fish eaten by Americans that is grown or caught overseas and it could endanger both domestic fisheries and the environment upon which they depend.
At less than 5 percent, U.S. farmed fish is a tiny proportion of fish eaten by U.S. consumers. Open ocean aquaculture would make no noticeable impact on that figure unless it were to grow into an enormous industry. Such a huge ocean fish-farming industry would have two very scary implications for the world’s oceans:
- Pollution and escaped farm fish. Ocean aquaculture can be a messy, often referred to as factory fish farms for their resemblance to large-scale animal agriculture on land. For each farm, we’re looking at thousands of fish crammed into an offshore pen with the local environment exposed to large amounts of fish food, waste, and whatever pharmaceuticals might be necessary to keep the fish alive under such conditions.
The consumer group Food & Water Watch estimates that the $5 billion factory fish farming industry the government would like to see develope would generate as much nitrogen waste as found in the untreated sewage of 17.1 million people – twice the population of New York City.
And even though NOAA’s guidelines would only allow aquaculture of fish native to the Gulf, farm escapees can still pose a risk. Farm animals are generally from a very limited genetic stock that could contaminate and skew the natural populations, potentially making the wild fish more susceptible to disease. Plus farm animals are breed for fast growth and escaped farm fish could outcompete wild ones for food.
Bryan Walsh of Time Magazine warns that attempting to displace imported farmed seafood with domestic aquaculture could lead to a “race to the bottom” in which “no one wins.” He explains that “part of the reason that countries like Chile, China and Honduras are able to supply inexpensive seafood to American eaters is because of lower environmental standards.”
- Possible increase in overfishing to supply fish-food for aquaculture. The fish that fetch a market price worth the effort for aquaculture operators are top-of-the-food-chain fish. “It can take over six pounds of this wild fish to create one pound of farmed fish, a formula that is both highly environmentally and economically inefficient,” according to Food & Water Watch. Gulf aquaculture at a scale that would have any effect on our international trade deficit would have a voracious appetite for feeder fish upon which wild predator fish depend too.
Then there’s the farce that this scenerio is good for the Gulf of Mexico economy or fisherman. There’s no question that aquaculture on this scale (remember, we’re trying to alter the international trade deficit) would alter the Gulf economy. Whether the change would be for the good is an open question. Flooding the U.S. market with farmed fish that were previously only available from wild fisheries will depress the price of those fish. The Gulf of Mexico fishing industry as we know it, which has been battered by hurricanes and oil spills, is unlikely to survive that.
Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter sums it up nicely: “Industrial ocean fish farming is a filthy way to produce fish, and contrary to NOAA’s claims, it is not a sustainable means to supplement the U.S. seafood supply, protect ocean resources, or promote a healthy economy in the United States.”
Fish farm off the coast of Hawaii photographed by NOAA