Fish farming proposal lacks
environmental controls


The federal government has begun a major push to expand fish farming.

THE Bush administration's proposal to greatly expand ocean fish farming is only half a plan. It contains no rules to protect wild fish stocks or traditional fishing, and nothing to safeguard coastal zones and marine refuges from pollution, chemicals, diseases, parasites or a host of other threats that have plagued fish farms in America and other countries.

Moreover, the proposal blithely places control of an immense public trust -- the nation's oceans, bigger than the entire land area of the United States -- in the hands of the secretary of commerce, who will be able to privatize stretches of open waters at his or her discretion.

Though the states like Hawaii have jurisdiction over waters three miles from their shores, the plan would allow fish farms to operate from just beyond that ambiguous zone to 200 miles out to sea. The proposed National Offshore Aquaculture Act does not place off limits any areas, including those designated as marine refuges or sanctuaries, such as the fragile Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Hawaii has been cautious in granting permits for nearshore aquaculture and enterprises in deeper water. While acknowledging the potential for economic gains, the state also has recognized the importance of protecting the primary resource from harm.

Bush's proposal has no environmental rules other than leaving it to the commerce secretary to develop them permit by permit, "if necessary." The notion is that chemicals and drugs used to maximize fish yields, fecal wastes and excess feed will drift harmlessly away. However, concentrations of contaminants likely will remain continually near fish cages, and affect wild populations in ways no one can predict.

Privatizing spans of ocean would bar traditional commercial harvests as well as recreational fishing, but the administration hopes to build a $5 billion industry to deliver "food security," an issue it says is part of the overall national security crusade.

How safe farmed fish will be is debatable. Last year a study published in the journal Science found that toxic chemicals in farmed salmon far exceeded amounts in wild salmon, possibly because of feed concentrated from ground-up smaller fish.

The administration contends that farmed fish is needed because natural supplies are dwindling, but it takes three pounds of wild fish to produce feed for one pound of farmed fish. Further, the kinds of fish likely to be raised will be limited, for maximum profit, to species that end up in white-tablecloth restaurants.

The plan merely suggests that fish-farm stocks be limited to species naturally found in an ocean region, but doesn't prohibit non-native fish, a concern since more than 2 million farmed fish a year escape pens in the Atlantic alone. There are no controls for alien organisms, such as algae or coral, that could damage marine ecosystems.

Hawaii's oceans would be ideal for fish farming and could spark the nascent industry here. However, though environmental protection is a key concern in the islands, it isn't a priority for the Bush administration. Without safeguards, the proposal should be rejected.

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