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Fish farming plan should be sunk

Posted: Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Bush administration’s push to allow fish farming for t he first time in federal waters does not bode well for Alaska.

The plan would mean ocean farming of shellfish, salmon and saltwater species could occur in federal waters from three to 200 miles offshore.

In announcing the plan last week, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said aquaculture is a $70 billion business that accounts for almost half the seafood consumed in the world.

About half the seafood eaten in the United States is farm-raised, and 70 percent of all seafood eaten in the United States comes from overseas.

Gutierrez used this as the main reason for expanding fish farming in the United States.

We see it as the prime reason not to.

Fish farming around the world already has dealt a crushing blow to Alaska’s fishermen. Prices for wild fish plummeted in the 1980s as competition from farmed fish ballooned.

Fishermen have eked back a portion of their livelihood through marketing campaigns, trying to convince consumers what Alaskans knew all along -- wild fish is better. It’s healthier and better for the environment.

But the federal government apparently isn’t interested in supporting the health of its populace or its maritime environment.

Why else would it be pushing a plan that would harm existing industry and pose drastic threats to wild fish stocks?

Money.

As Gutierrez said, importing fish from overseas creates “a trade deficit of about $9 billion in fish.”

That’s significant, to be sure, but so are the potential harms of this proposal.

Fish farming involves wastewater discharge, pesticides and other chemicals that can harm ecosystems.

Then there’s the genetic threat posed to wild stocks if farmed fish get loose, as they invariably do, and the competition that would ensue if farmed fish took up residence in wild fish territory.

The federal government’s plan gives states the option to disallow fish farming up to 12 miles offshore of their coasts. But that restriction does little in the way of protection. A problem with a fish farm offshore of Oregon could negatively impact Alaska, and a poorly operated farm 12 miles off the coast of Alaska undoubtably would.

That’s the thing. Water moves. So do fish. It’s unreasonable to assume pollution or a containment break 12 miles offshore would stay 12 miles offshore.

The Bush administration includes fail-safes in its plan to protect against these occurrences. Fish farming businesses would be required to post bonds or other financial guarantees that they will remove the farms when they are done operating. And operators could be fined for violations, up to $250,000 a day per violation, and criminal penalties of up to five years in prison and $500,000 in fines.

That still isn’t enough protection. Once a disaster happens, all the fines in the world won’t reverse the damage done.

That’s why more study needs to be done to assess exactly how big a risk this proposal poses.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has called for Congress to resist fish farming until a study can be conducted on how it will affect Alaska’s wild fish stocks.

That study hasn’t happened. Yet the Bush administration is pushing ahead without it.

Hopefully Congress realizes the threats posed by fish farming outweigh the monetary benefits that may come from it and deep-sixes this proposal, as it deserves.



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