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One Man's Opinion: Aquaculture Act unlikely to make a difference

Peter Redmayne
By Peter Redmayne
July 01, 2005

Now that aquaculture is a multibillion-dollar industry that produces about 30 percent of the world seafood supply, the U.S. government has decided that maybe it should have a policy to ensure that America becomes a player in fish farming, too. 

Since the United States currently runs a $7.6 billion trade deficit in seafood, this would seem to be a wise decision. But will any policy the feds come up with really make a difference?

Establishing a coherent aquaculture policy in Washington is not a new concept and in fact has been attempted for decades. One of the problems, though, is a question of whos in charge. So far, the answer is: nobody.

The largest U.S. aquaculture industry  the catfish industry  answers to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since catfish farmers grew soybeans before switching to fish, this makes sense (the fact that Ag was very helpful in developing the industry certainly helped, too).

Down on the shore, meanwhile, the states call the shots. And state governments, with very few exceptions, have been largely powerless to prevent adjacent landowners from requiring expensive environmental impact statements that make it prohibitively expensive for aquaculture operations to get permits.

Even in some cases where fish and shellfish farmers have received permits from a state, they have been unable to use them, as opponents have tied the farmers up in court.

Last month, the National Marine Fisheries Service, steward of our federal waters, weighed in with the National Offshore Aquaculture Act of 2005. The NMFS initiative gives the secretary of commerce a streamlined authority to issue 10-year permits for any fish farm outside of state jurisdiction, which ends at three miles.

Since there are very few fish farmers brave enough to sink millions into an expensive offshore fish farm, reaction to the proposed bill was muted, with one notable exception - Alaska.

In the Last Frontier, fish farming is considered more toxic than molybdenum mining. Both Alaska's junior senator, Lisa Murkowski, and her father, governor (and former U.S. senator) Frank Murkowski, remain stridently opposed to any fish farming anywhere near Alaska, which has banned aquaculture in its waters for almost 20 years.

"In Alaska, coastal communities have traditionally lived off the bountiful fish resources of our sea, and marine finfish farming threatens that livelihood as well as consumer confidence in wild Alaska salmon," Gov. Murkowski said after NMFS introduced its legislation.

Although federal legislation will trump any state laws banning fish farming outside of three miles, the state of Alaska will still do everything it can to throw a monkey wrench into any efforts to farm fish off its shores.

NMFS envisions an offshore aquaculture industry that will be producing $5 billion worth of fish by the year 2025. The new Aquaculture Act is a good step in making it easier to achieve that goal.

Ultimately, however, the ability to grow fish off American shores will come down to simple economics. And it is here that any effort to develop a significant U.S. fish-farming industry may flounder. The cost of production in places like Chile and China is much, much lower, a reality that is not about to change anytime soon.

And while a nice, new Aquaculture Act will help, it probably wont be enough to make a difference.

Contributing Editor Peter Redmayne lives in Seattle

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