April 3, 2005
Oil Platforms May Be Used for Fish Farms
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Thousands of oil and natural gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico could be converted into deep-sea fish farms raising red snapper, mahi mahi, yellow fin tuna and flounder, under a plan backed by the Bush administration.
For years, marine biologists and oil companies have experimented using the giant platforms as bases for mariculture, but commercial use of the platforms as fish farms never got off the ground because of the federal government's reluctance to open up the oceans to farming.
Yet in December, President Bush proposed making it easier to launch fish farms off the nation's coasts. That could be done by resolving a "confounding array of regulatory and legal obstacles," the White House said.
Fish farming in the rough-and-tumble ocean, done by enclosing thousands of fish in submerged pens serviced by scuba divers, is limited commercially to waters within state jurisdiction, where permits have tended to be easier to get. Moi is grown in Hawaii, and cobia is farmed near Puerto Rico. Salmon farming is common, but it takes place mostly in the calm waters of fjords and bays.
But, fish farmers say, the future is rosy and fast-approaching.
"In Asia, they're starting to creep off into the open waters; there's a lot of talk of doing it in Ireland. In the Mediterranean, they are now looking at moving out into open waters and experimenting with new cages," said Richard Langan, who heads the University of New Hampshire's Open Ocean Aquaculture program. He is experimenting with a variety of species - cod, Atlantic halibut, haddock, summer flounder and mussels.
With seafood now accounting for about $7 billion in the nation's foreign trade deficit, advocates of deep-sea farming say mariculture would bolster American seafood production and provide much-needed employment to coastal communities harmed by the eclipse of traditional fishing.
"Aquaculture is an issue that is here, and now we're already in the middle of it and how is the U.S. going to play in the game?" said Michael Rubino, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's aquaculture coordinator. "It's already being done in a big way in Korea, Taiwan and China. In the U.S., we'd like to start small, prove the concept and learn by doing."
The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy recommended in its report last year to move forward with offshore aquaculture, but to hold it to high environmental standards. In a response to the commission's report, Bush in his "Ocean Action Plan" listed offshore farming legislation as a priority this year.
The new frontier is federal waters, Rubino said. "There's no good framework in terms of where this should be done, how it should be done, how the rules of the game should be applied."
The Gulf could be just the place where such a framework is developed.
Oil and gas platforms function as barn-like bases: They're big enough to store feed, their deck winches and cranes can lift and drop pens in and out of the water and, if needed, fish farmers can spend the night onboard.
And unlike many in Florida and California, the people along the coasts of Louisiana and Texas by and large welcome the offshore industry and its array of spindly legged and blinking rigs and platforms.
"The Gulf has tremendous potential," said Granvil Treece, an aquaculture specialist at the Texas Sea Grant. "There's been a logjam so far, and that's been because of permitting mostly."
There are an estimated 3,500 idle platforms in the Gulf - and each one of them could be a candidate for a new lease on life as a fish farm.
"The oil companies are looking for a way of leaving platforms in place and delaying the disassembly and expensive process of dismantling and removing a platform," said George Chamberlain, president of the St. Louis-based Global Aquaculture Alliance. It costs about $2 million to bring a platform ashore, Treece said, but another option, the "Rigs-to-Reefs" program converting a platform into an artificial reef, costs about $800,000. Chamberlain said the cost of production in fish farming continues to decline.
So far farming from the Gulf's platforms has only been experimental. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, for example, Occidental Petroleum Corp. (OXY) teamed up with Texas Sea Grant scientists to grow redfish. Feeding the penned fish brought out some ingenious ideas and presented some problems.
Project officials learned computers could be used to open feed gates. With so many platforms far out in the Gulf a boat can't go out every day to unload fish feed as farmers do with salmon in the fjords of Scandinavia and North America.
"We dumped feed amounts in depending on how many fish were in the pens and what weight we wanted to grow them to," said Russell Miget, a Texas Sea Grant fisheries specialist who worked on the project.
Severe storms damaged some pens and fish got out. And Treece said studies show that the ocean-raised redfish worked out to cost a whopping $22 a pound, whereas redfish sold for $3.50 a pound at market. Also, just to run the platform's navigational lights and fight off corrosion cost about $50,000 a year, he said.
Miget remembered standing on a platform with an Occidental representative contemplating the future of fish farming. Responding to a question, Miget estimated that in ideal conditions, the platform could gross $6 million a year.
"The Occidental employee turned to me and said: 'We produce $6 million in gas every month off this platform,'" Miget said. "That put it in perspective."
While advocates believe it could work and be profitable, it's less sure whether any legislation Bush proposes will get the support of environmentalists.
Critics worry about turning the nation's oceans into the equivalent of ugly, dirty feedlots - but for fish instead of cattle.
"It's much like chickens or hogs or other confined feeding operations on land and putting them in the ocean," said Roger Rufe, president of The Ocean Conservancy. "There are considerable issues with that, pollution issues."
Not to worry, Treece said, who believes the Gulf's strong currents "should take care of that," he said. "The solution to pollution is dilution, and that's what you got out here - lots of dilution."
"We've found environmental impacts to be relatively minor," Rubino said. "You don't want to crowd these together and stick them on top of coral reefs."
He added: "This is a big coastline. We're not needing a lot of space."
Critics also question whether the government should designate sections of the ocean for farming and, in effect, privatize a public resource.
Another concern: Hatchery-raised fish could be put out in open-water farms, escape into the wild and corrupt wild populations' genetic pools.
Alaskan fishermen, for example, warn that their wild stocks are being infiltrated by Atlantic salmon bred in fish farms.
"The potential for Atlantic salmon to compete with our natural wild salmon or to spread diseases is an ongoing concern and part of the reason the United Fishermen of Alaska opposes finfish farming," said that group's executive director, Mark Vinsel.
The efficiency of fish farming is another question. Fish farmers have been known to feed eight pounds of fish for every pound of fish they raise, said Andy Rosenberg, a U.S. Ocean Commission member and former deputy director of the National Marine Fisheries Service. Fish farming, he said, "has the potential to produce high-quality seafood, but you need to do it carefully and it needs to be managed in a comprehensive way."
On The Net:
Bush's Ocean Action Plan: http://ocean.ceq.gov/
Global Aquaculture Alliance: http://www.gaalliance.org/
University of New Hampshire's Open Ocean Aquaculture project: http://ooa.unh.edu/