July 10, 2008

Proposal Lets Fish Farms Operate in U.S. Waters

By Michael Collins, Ventura County Star, Calif.

Jul. 10--WASHINGTON -- Fish farms could be allowed to operate for the first time in federal waters off the nation's coasts under a Bush administration proposal that critics say is a blatant attempt to bypass Congress and set up a marine program that lawmakers have been reluctant to approve.

A proposed rule, published Wednesday in the Federal Register, opens the door for fish-farm operators to obtain leases, easements or rights of way for the use of existing oil and gas platforms in federal waters.

Administration officials say there are currently no proposals to set up fish-farm operations in federal waters, which generally begin three miles offshore.

The proposed rule would simply put in place a process to review and evaluate such a proposal should someone request permission to use offshore platforms for a fish-farming operation, said David Smith, a spokesman for the U.S. Minerals Management Service.

But environmentalists and watchdog groups suspect something else is behind the administration's plans.

"The Bush administration's proposal provides back-door access to our oceans for industrial-sized fish farms," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the advocacy group Food & Water Watch.

"What's more," Hauter said, "(the proposal) allows energy companies to sell their oil and gas rigs rather than restoring the marine environment."

The administration's proposal is "a monstrous idea," said Santi Roberts, California project manager for Oceana, which works to protect and restore the world's oceans.

"Our oceans are facing extreme stresses, and we need to start reducing pressures where we can, not compounding them by using the waste from one bad idea to push through an even worse idea," Roberts said.

Ocean fish farming, also known as marine aquaculture, is currently limited to within three miles of shore. The administration has been pushing for years to extend fish farming into federal waters, arguing the expansion is needed to replenish depleted fish stocks and satisfy Americans' growing appetite for seafood.

Permit process affected

But Congress has been hesitant to broaden fish-farming boundaries. A bill that would have allowed federal permits for fish farming from three to 200 miles off the coast died in 2005. Likewise, similar bills have stalled in Congress this year.

The proposed rule allows the administration to take a different approach. By handling the issue through a federal agency's rule-making process instead of going to Congress, the administration would be able to permit fish farming in federal waters without waiting until lawmakers pass the legislation.

Smith said the Bush administration is not trying to bypass Congress. A comprehensive energy bill passed by Congress in 2005 gives the Minerals Management Service the authority to regulate alternate projects, such as fish farms, on offshore platforms, Smith said.

"We're trying our best to follow what Congress told us to do," he said.

Aquaculture is just one of the alternate uses for the platforms that would be considered under the proposed rule, Smith said.

Any fish-farm proposal would have to undergo a review to determine its effect on the environment, he said, and other federal agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, would likely be involved in the regulatory process.

The Minerals Management Service will accept public comment on the proposed rule for 60 days and hopes to finalize the new rule by the end of the year, Smith said.

Opponents argue that offshore aquaculture is bad for the environment because it often involves the discharge of tons of waste and the use of pesticides, antibiotics and other possibly harmful chemicals.

In addition, they say, fish farming can produce non-native species that can escape and spread disease to wild-fish populations.

But proponents counter that, under the right conditions, ocean fish farming can be done without harming the environment or endangering native species.

"With any type of food production or just about anything you do, whether it's on land or ocean, there are environmental effects that have to be managed," said Richard Langan, director of the Atlantic Marine Aquaculture Center at the University of New Hampshire. "It's not as black and white as some people would paint."

No plans for farms here

Three years ago, the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute proposed using Platform Grace, an old oil rig that was inactive at the time, as the base for a fish farm 10 miles off the Ventura County coast. The idea was eventually abandoned after Denver-based Venoco Inc. purchased the platform and resumed oil drilling there.

Don Kent, president of Hubbs-SeaWorld, said the company is now looking at putting fish cages off the shores of San Diego and has no plans to set up a fish farm off Ventura County.

But, he said, oil and gas platforms in general would make a good base for fish-farm operations because they are built to hold equipment much heavier than anything used in aquaculture and are usually located far offshore.

"You can be out in clean water near the market you are trying to serve without interfering with the coastal zone," Kent said.

Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, said California has set a good example for the nation by enacting legislation to responsibly regulate offshore aquaculture in state waters.

"Unfortunately, the Bush administration's latest proposal lacks these important safeguards," Capps said.

Capps said she would continue to push for legislation to ensure that any aquaculture projects are placed "in appropriate locations" and provide "common sense environmental and health and safety standards."


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Copyright (c) 2008, Ventura County Star, Calif.

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