June 14, 2006 – Four years ago, 600,000 ocean-farmed salmon in the North Atlantic Ocean escaped from their cages into the wild when a fierce storm pummeled the Faroe Islands.
A round-up of the "herd" was impossible, as the fish were swallowed by the ocean and left to mingle and breed with the wild salmon population. The escape is indicative of the approximately 2 million farmed salmon lost every year in the North Atlantic, which has critics of open-ocean aquaculture (OOA) increasingly worried about the effects of intermixing wild and farmed fish, as well as a host of other environmental and socio-economic concerns associated with the practice.
Now Congress is considering a plan â€“ ten years in the making â€“ to open federal waters to OOA practices. The National Offshore Aquaculture Act of 2005, written at the behest of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), would give the Secretary of Commerce authority to grant aquaculture permits in the "exclusive economic zone," which comprises 3.4 million square miles of federal waters, anywhere from three to 200 nautical miles offshore.
The US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing on the bill on June 8.
Concerns about OOA â€“ by which farmers keep thousands of fish in giant, underwater cages offshore in the exposed sea â€“ include biological and environmental pollution, habitat destruction, the depletion of other fish, adverse human health effects and the undermining of local fishing communities.
â€œWeâ€™re very concerned that aquaculture off US shores will look very similar to fish farming in other countries, which has been an unmitigated disaster.â€
Zach Corrigan, staff attorney for Food and Water Watch, a national organization that fights for sustainable food, says he is not only nervous about the bill, but about the general practice of aquaculture.
"Weâ€™re very concerned that aquaculture off US shores will look very similar to fish farming in other countries, which has been an unmitigated disaster," Corrigan told The NewStandard.
In British Columbia, where thousands of salmon have escaped into the wild, Dom Repta, a spokesperson for Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform, says his group is witnessing the impacts of more than 25 years of OOA.
"First we were told they would never escape," Repta said. "Then we were told they would never survive. Then we were told that they would never spawn. And theyâ€™ve actually done all of those things."
Environmentalists fear that an influx of specifically bred, farm-raised fish could harm wild fish populations by spreading disease and parasites, and through increased competition and interbreeding.
"Weâ€™re looking atâ€¦ captive fish that have been bred to be eating machines," Corrigan said, "and the result is that these fish have escaped, and they threaten the local wild population by competing with them and lowering the genetic gene pool."
In 2000, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA included Maineâ€™s Atlantic salmon on the Endangered Species List. A joint report by the agencies attributed the endangerment of the wild salmon to "continued use of non-native American salmon and detection of aquaculture escapes in Maine rivers, with the potential for interbreeding and competition for habitat and food."
â€œFirst we were told [the salmon] would never escape. Then we were told they would never survive. Then we were told that they would never spawn. And theyâ€™ve actually done all of those things.â€
But according to Corrigan and others, thatâ€™s only the "tip of the iceberg" for problems linked to aquaculture.
OOA does not typically employ a waste-treatment system, but instead relies on ocean currents to dilute pollution. Critics say the cumulative results of a large-scale OOA industry could contaminate the water, destroy the seabed and affect wild fish habitats; a single salmon farm with 200,000 fish is estimated to generate fecal wastes equal to a city of over 60,000 people.
"You have hundreds of thousands of fish in a closed-cage environment where the waste flows right into the open ocean, potentially harming the seafloor and harming the water quality," Corrigan said.
Pollution from aquaculture also includes antibiotics, parasite-killing pesticides, hormones, anesthetics and pigments.
"Measures need to be taken to eliminate or absolutely minimize antibiotics or other drugs that are used in farmed fish," Goldburg said, "because they go directly into surrounding waters, as well as into the fish that then get eaten."
Many of the chemicals used in fish farming have adverse human health implications. For example, the industry currently uses the dye Malachite green and an antibiotic called chloramphenicol, both of which are toxic to humans. Additionally, antibiotics used on the fish can create resistant strains of bacteria, making it more difficult for humans to fight disease.
Critics of the bill before Congress say the legislation imparts weak safeguards for the dozens of environmental and social problems caused by aquaculture, and instead fast-tracks a practice that could promulgate the destruction of the USâ€™s "last remaining frontier."
â€œYou have hundreds of thousands of fish in a closed-cage environment where the waste flows right into the open ocean, potentially harming the seafloor and harming the water quality.â€
According to the US Department of Commerce, the US imports 70 percent of its seafood, half of which are products of aquaculture. Dr. Michael Rubino, manager of NOAA's aquaculture program, said the agency has been working to develop domestic aquaculture as a complement to commercial fishing in order to reduce the USâ€™s $8 billion seafood trade deficit and meet the growing demand for seafood.
The US already uses salt and fresh water ponds, tanks and coastal facilities for aquaculture; as of 1999, there were 4,000 fish farm facilities in the US. The industry, which generates about $1 billion a year, provides consumers with almost all of the catfish and trout on the market, as well as half of the shrimp and salmon available.
The bill would also allow aquaculture of finfish such as cod, halibut and red snapper.
"The reality of todayâ€™s global seafood market is that seafood demand exceeds the supply from wild fisheries," Rubino told TNS. "In the future, the gapâ€¦ will widen, and will only be filled through even greater aquaculture production. The only real question is whether that aquaculture production will come from US production, or from imports."
Although Rubino admits aquaculture has some environmental drawbacks, he said advances in the practice, such as cages designed to diminish escapes and models to address water quality, "minimize a range of ecological impacts from operations."
Many environmentalists, however, are not convinced the bill will actually mitigate the risks related to aquaculture
According to Food and Water Watchâ€™s analysis of the bill, the legislation does not require tracking of farmed fish to assist wild-fish management; does not require bonds to cover any damage created by escaped fish, pollution or the spread of disease; and does not force [NOAA] to ensure that problems with aquaculture are minimized. That assessment is consistent with TNSâ€™s reading of the bill.
"NOAA is advocating for a bill that basically says, â€˜Trust us, weâ€™ll do the right thing,â€™" said Rebecca Goldburg, senior scientist at Environmental Defense. "The bill doesnâ€™t contain any safeguards that people like myself would like to see."
NOAAâ€™s proposal does not include a Legislative Environmental Impact Statement (LEIS), mandated by Congress as part of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Congress uses a LEIS to project the environmental effects of a proposed action.
Corrigan of Food and Water Watch said he would like the administration to "do its homework" and study the impacts of aquaculture, to redraft a bill with stricter environmental measures.
While NOAA says it is supportive of aquaculture to supplement the dwindling wild fish populations, many critics say that fish-farming can actually contribute to over-fishing, as it is dependent on wild-caught fish for feed. Finfish require two to five kilograms each of wild-caught fish in order to gain a single kilogram, or just over two pounds.
This logic, said Corrigan, is comparable to switching from raising pigs to raising tigers. "The amount of cattle that we would have to slaughter to raise tigers to the quantity that we now consume pigs is just absolutely amazing," he said.
Corrigan points out that the aquaculture industryâ€™s reliance on small fish to feed large, carnivorous fish contributes to social inequality back on land.
"A lot of these smaller fish, also known as â€˜trash fish,â€™ are important sources of protein for societies that arenâ€™t as [economically] well-off, especially in the global South," Corrigan said. So while aquaculture may take the pressure off over-fishing of large fish, Corrigan said, it just "passes the buck" to small fish like sardines and anchovies.
Furthermore, the expansion into OOA does not address the problem of over-consuming fish in general.
Other critics are apprehensive about the effects of OOA on fishermen.
Jeremy Brown, a commercial fisherman from Alaska to the South Pacific for 20 years, told TNS that he is concerned about aquaculture "because it means weâ€™re producing seafood without fisherman and without fishing communities."
Less fishermen, said Brown, could result in less people guarding the coastline from commercial development. Brown sees the practice of OOA as a privatization of the last relatively functional eco-system.
"Agriculture and cities have changed the landscape beyond recognition," Brown said. "We donâ€™t treat [the ocean] terribly well, but nevertheless itâ€™s still a natural, functional ecosystem. The proposition of industrializing the ocean is to replace that with very much the same process that weâ€™ve done on land."