Ocean Fish Farms and Public-Resource Privatization

The U.S. government has a pattern of allowing big businesses exclusive use of common properties for individual profits. Frequently, this occurs regardless of whether such projects help or harm the general public. Public resources are increasingly being treated like private property -- and our oceans are no exception. Quota programs allocate "shares" of fish to only a handful of fishing businesses, and oil companies' rigs overwhelm parts of the Gulf of Mexico and California coast, causing pollution on nearby beaches and ruining vistas. Now ocean fish farming is at the forefront of debates over equitable use of public ocean resources.

Ocean fish farming, also known as offshore aquaculture or open-water aquaculture, is the mass production of fish in large floating pens or cages in ocean waters. The fish-farming concept is not new. Five thousand years ago, Chinese villagers trapped carp in artificial lakes that formed when flooded rivers receded. Around 600 A.D., the Menehune of Hawaii built a huge fish pond on Kauai, as the legend goes, by erecting a 900-foot-long wall out of lava rock overnight. Today, similar practices occur in near-shore or onshore operations in Thailand, Japan, China, and elsewhere worldwide.

Commercial-scale offshore aquaculture, however, is relatively new for the U.S. Fully envisioning the magnitude of such a business can therefore be challenging. Picture a massive industrial chicken farm, in the ocean -- many fish, in cramped quarters, eating, excreting, and growing. Facilities typically include multiple large fish enclosures -- one popular cage is about twice the size of an Olympic swimming pool -- crammed with thousands of fish for voluminous and rapid production. These pens can be partially or fully submerged and are often anchored to the sea floor. Just one "farm" is a large-scale operation. In recent years, various U.S. government entities, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), both tasked with conservation and management of natural ocean resources, have openly stated that they intend to support the creation of a program to allow ocean fish farms off coasts all around the country, through national legislation or administrative agency regulations.

While legal mechanisms are available to allow experimental ocean fish farms in U.S. waters, currently, no law specifically authorizes a comprehensive means for long-term, commercial-scale operations. The fragmented U.S. approach to oceans management, with assorted agencies having primary jurisdiction over various pieces of our oceans -- for example, the Environmental Protection Agency on pollution and the Minerals Management Service over outer continental-shelf benthic resources (such as oil and gas and extraction facilities like rigs and pipelines) -- would require multiple permits from many agencies before an ocean farm could exist. Most of these agencies also do not have specific standards for managing ocean fish farms; such an industry was not yet contemplated at the time many federal laws were passed. Using existing laws to govern ocean fish farms would be like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Proponents of ocean fish farms -- mostly aquaculture entrepreneurs and federal agencies -- insist that such an industry in the U.S. will benefit the public by providing new jobs, reducing fishing of depleted wild fish populations, and lessening U.S. dependence on imported seafood products. However, programs are often designed so the corporations owning the facilities will mainly benefit. In fact, a compelling case can be made that ocean fish farming could actually hurt the U.S. at this time:

Fish farms are likely to reduce jobs, causing economic problems for coastal communities. In the 1990s, the fish-farming industry in British Columbia tripled but added no new jobs. In Scotland and Norway, the salmon-farming industry dramatically expanded production, but employment decreased due to increased mechanization.

Worse than not fulfilling the promise of providing new jobs, U.S. ocean fish farms are likely to outcompete and ultimately replace traditional fishing, causing widespread job losses. This happens due to simple market forces: Industrial farming can regularly produce tons of fish. Flooding the market with these fish can cause prices to drop. Also, companies can usually charge less for farmed fish, because artificial mass production is less costly and less time intensive than traditional fishing. Usually, fishermen cannot compete with lower fish prices, especially now with sky-high rates for the fuel necessary to run fishing boats. As the number of fishermen dwindles, support businesses, like marine supply stores and dock facilities, will also suffer, risking more job loss and hurting economies of coastal communities.

Farming fish could increase the take of wild fish and disrupt ecosystems. Most fish for ocean farming are carnivorous and will eat feed containing other fish. Already, significant amounts of wild prey fish are removed from ocean waters -- about 23 million to 33 million tons annually worldwide were used for feed in recent years. Ocean farms in U.S. waters will need fish for use as protein in feed. Efficiency will likely dictate that the fish for feed in domestic ocean farms come from nearby waters -- increasing the take of local wild fish. Often, fish used in feed are the same that other wild fish and marine birds eat. This leaves less food in the wild and disrupts ecosystem balance.

Fish farms are unlikely to eliminate our seafood deficit. Currently, the U.S. exports about 71 percent of its domestic fish production, including tilapia, tuna, salmon, crab, and some shrimp. Ironically, these are among the six top seafood imports. The U.S. sends abroad the fish it produces in order to fetch a higher price, and serves cheaper, often industrially produced, lower-quality, imported fish in domestic restaurants and markets. Likely, this will not change dramatically with the coming of U.S. ocean fish farms. The industry is intended for profit -- fish farmed in U.S. waters will therefore probably be sent elsewhere for bigger dollar returns -- likely leaving the U.S. with just the environmental and economic consequences.

Fish farms can be dirty, pollute the environment, and infect wildlife. Because ocean fish farms allow free flow of water between the cages and the ocean, concentrated amounts of fish food, wastes, diseases, and any chemicals or antibiotics that may be used in farms can flow straight into ocean waters. A report about one ocean-farming facility affiliated with the University of Hawaii said the farm "grossly polluted" the seafloor and "severely depressed" sea life. In Norway and British Columbia, numerous problems have occurred with parasites spreading from caged farmed salmon to wild salmon.

All these issues beg the question: Why does the U.S. government continue to pursue initiating a commercial-scale ocean fish-farming program when it could cause so many domestic problems? The basic rhetoric regarding jobs, protecting wild fish, and reducing a seafood deficit is easily rebutted, and therefore, there has been no meaningful answer. Rather, agency representatives and ocean-farming entrepreneurs simply repeat over and over that developing an ocean fish-farming industry is a top U.S. priority that will benefit the nation, without being able to conclusively prove such statements.

Fortunately, despite the administration's enthusiastic support for ocean fish farms, Congress has not established a national offshore aquaculture program. Bills introduced in 2005 and 2007 were challenged by commercial and recreational fishing groups, conservation and consumer organizations, scientists, and many others as being, among other things, reckless and lacking sufficient safeguards to protect the marine environment and the economies of coastal communities. After Congress held hearings on each bill, they fizzled.

Without congressional action, administration focus has shifted to back-up avenues for permitting a U.S. ocean-farming industry. The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, a regional advisory body that helps NOAA make fishing regulations, is developing an ocean fish-farming plan. The plan has been moving steadily toward completion, ushered along mostly by NOAA staff and existing and would-be aquaculturists who sit on the council. The very people poised to benefit from the industry are creating it. The council is scheduled to approve its ocean fish-farming plan in early 2009.

Simultaneously, the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the agency that regulates energy resources, was moving on rules that would permit oil rigs and other ocean energy structures to be used as sites for fish farms. This could allow energy companies to greatly delay and possibly avoid the enormous expenses for removal of old facilities. MMS has no experience with aquaculture and no power to comprehensively, and thus effectively, regulate a new big industry. While MMS has shown no concern about its inabilities, Congress has -- a letter from the House Natural Resources Committee opposing the rule, followed by a House bill on Sept. 25, 2008, from Rep. Don Young of Alaska prohibiting the rule, might put the brakes on this endeavor. If not, this plan is scheduled for finalization by MMS in the near future, possibly by the end of 2008.

For now, the potential for a large-scale ocean resources giveaway has been avoided. Collective pressure has been successful at preventing fish farms from taking over federal waters. Though our ocean resources have often seemed slated for misuse, supported by a big business–centric administration, vigilant public monitoring and action can and should ensure that common properties remain precisely that and are applied to benefit all, rather than a few.