Fishing rules body OKs Gulf offshore fish farming

Bay St. Louis, Miss. (AP) — Offshore fish farming would be
allowed in the Gulf of Mexico under a plan approved Wednesday by
the agency that sets the body of water’s fishing rules.

Fishermen complained that making the Gulf the first federal
waters off the U.S. to allow the farming would cause pollution and
drive them out of business. Supporters, though, say the farming
would give the country a bigger piece of a multibillion-dollar
industry.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council voted 11-to-5 in
favor of allowing the farming. One member involved in aquaculture
research abstained. The U.S. Commerce Department has final say on
the rules.

Those against the plan claimed the large cages and pens that
would raise fish far offshore would pollute the oceans with fish
waste and chemicals. Farmed fish, which often get heavy doses of
antibiotics, can also escape into the wild and interfere with
native species.

“We simply do not want this,” Avery Bates, vice president of the
Organized Seafood Association of Alabama, told the council before
the vote. “Do not allow this, I don’t care who’s pushing your
buttons … Don’t put us out of business.”

Bates, who represents about 200 commercial fishermen in Alabama,
said there was fear that foreign companies would buy permits to
farm fish offshore and then sell the fish at reduced prices,
undercutting U.S. fishermen.

Harlon Pearce, a council board member, said farming would create
jobs for struggling fishermen. Fishermen, he said, “have been
over-regulated to death and we don’t have enough wild production
because of regulatory problems.”

The United States takes in about $10 billion in seafood imports
a year and exports only about $2.7 billion, according to data from
the Commerce Department. About 80 percent of all seafood consumed
in the United States is imported.

Commercial seafood company owner John D. Ericsson favors the
plan. He said the United States has fallen behind countries like
Greece, Norway and Chile, where offshore farming has taken off.

Board member Pearce agreed, saying it was time for the United
States to “catch up with the rest of the world.” Some states do
allow fish farming close to shore.

Ericsson said his company, Florida-based BioMarine Technologies
Inc., is looking at growing fish in cages that could contain up to
60,000 cobia, also known as king fish in the Northeast, and
amberjack. He said it would take about $10 million to set up an
offshore fish farm.

“It’s a serious business commitment,” he said.

Besides creating jobs, fish farming is important for the
nation’s food security, he said. “Just think if someone was able to
wipe out our cows and other land creatures with an anthrax. Where
would we get our protein from?” he said.

Supporters of farms estimate that it would take only 2,000 acres
of fish farms in the Gulf to match the amount of fish caught every
year in the wild, but sport and commercial fishermen lined up
against the plan being considered by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery
Management Council, which sets fishing rules. The offshore farming
plan still needs final approval from the Commerce Department, which
hasn’t taken a position yet. The earliest Commerce could weigh in
would be three months from now, after a comment period.

Charter boat fishermen also were opposed, saying it would limit
the fishing waters, said Bob Zales II, the executive director of
the Conservation Cooperative of Gulf Fishermen.

“They’re going to take an area and put their cages there and I
can’t fish there anymore,” Zales said.

Fish farming has so far been limited close to shore, but the
Gulf council’s proposal would establish sweeping regulation that
would open up waters far offshore.

Former President George W. Bush’s administration pushed for
opening U.S. waters to fish farming and succeeded in drawing
support for the idea.

Opponents said after Wednesday night’s setback they were hopeful
the new Obama administration would see the issue differently.

“The (Obama) administration is dedicated to protecting the
marine environment and I hope it says, ‘Not on my watch,”’ said
Zach Corrigan, a staff attorney with the Food & Water Watch, a
Washington-based group that fought offshore fish farming.

In the Gulf, there is interest in transforming unused offshore
oil and natural gas platforms into fish farms. Some oil companies
have experimented with platforms to anchor underwater pens. The
platforms themselves could store feed and house farmers.

But critics say oil companies are looking for ways to avoid the
costly removal of platforms that are longer used.

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