Ranching The Open Sea
MICHAEL MILSTEIN / The Oregonian 23dec03
Look out at the boundless ocean, and envision a new Iowa—homesteaded by fish farm colonies bigger than downtown Portland, with row upon row of undersea cages roiling with swimming livestock.
It's a dream of seafood visionaries, and the Bush administration is laying the foundation for it.
Federal officials are drafting legislation to let fish farmers lay claim to parcels of sea, just as pioneers laid claim to acreage in the unsettled West. Expected to head to Congress next year, it would apply to federal waters from three to 200 miles offshore—an immense region outside state jurisdiction and bigger than the entire land area of the continental United States.
The move underscores U.S. government aims to expand fish farming in the United States fivefold by 2025. At that rate, the value of farmed seafood would surpass that of the nation's wild catch. Commercial fishing may become one of the last of the hunting and gathering traditions.
With salmon prices depressed, the new breed of farms may raise more marketable species: cod, halibut, black cod, red snapper, shellfish and more. Nobody imagines it would all happen right away, but over time, fishing boats could give way to barge-like cage complexes that hover below the waves—safe from storms—before rising up on floats come harvest time.
Unlike land, oceans have long been viewed as a common resource. The new legislation would grant businesses exclusive use of the sea under leases that may run 20 years, signaling the United States' plans to embrace an aquaculture boom sweeping the world.
"It would be sort of industrializing the oceans to produce things, and that's a brand-new idea for people," says Richard Hildreth, director of the Ocean and Coastal Law Center at the University of Oregon.
Fish farmers speak in dreamy terms of "blue pastures" ready to be sown. Offshore farming can reduce the nation's rising dependency on imported seafood, they say. More than 75 percent of seafood eaten in the United States comes from abroad, much of it raised on farms that may lack rigorous health and environmental standards.
"It's a food security issue," says Conrad Mahnken of the NOAA-Fisheries Northwest Fisheries Science Center near Seattle, who is working on the new legislation. "It's difficult to know the quality of our food when we don't control where it comes from."
This is the fish farming vision.
But many Northwest fishermen see it as the first step toward privatizing the oceans, undermining fishing communities and handing over public waters to industry. A bill in Congress would also let oil companies avoid the cost of removing marine drilling platforms—and claim tax breaks—by converting them to free-standing fish farms.
Fish farming today could open the door to eventual leasing of the ocean for garbage dumping or other damaging uses, critics say.
"This is one of the largest public trusts we have," says Jeremy Brown [Link at Food and Society Fellows Program website] , a salmon and albacore troller in Bellingham, Wash., who is trying to rally others against the movement. "Industry and the administration are looking at it and saying, 'How can we cash in?' "
On the far north coast of Norway, amid an Arctic landscape covered in snow much of the year, a laboratory is developing fish for the sea farms of tomorrow.
Anyone entering the chilly basement room full of conical tanks swirling with finger-sized cod must first don sterile slippers. The Norwegian government has invested $3 million in these pale gray fish—the first generation of a national breeding program for cod.
Six researchers, including geneticists and molecular scientists who can scrutinize the tiniest bit of DNA, track the fish daily to select those best suited to farm life. Traits such as growth rate, disease resistance and adaptability to confined spaces all figure in.
Farmers have long sorted cows and chickens in similar ways, and Norway has become the most proficient farmer of high-value fish. The Scandinavian country has mastered salmon farming and exported it around the world.
Cod, a worldwide staple, may be next, especially with wild stocks in steep decline.
"We are realizing that captures of wild cod may never be much greater than they are today," says Arne Arnesen, director of aquaculture research for the Norwegian Institute of Fisheries and Aquaculture Research, which operates the breeding center on the island Ringvassoy. "There is now room for more farmed species."
Down the laboratory's hallways, tanks burble with tiny, transparent lemon sole, mean-toothed wolffish, sea urchins, king crab and more—all species that may have a future on farms.
When it comes to aquaculture, countries including Norway, Japan and Chile have left the United States in the dust. Fish farming is expanding around the world by about 10 percent a year, but by only 2 percent in the United States, says Linda Chaves, director of the office of constituent affairs at National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration-Fisheries.
"Why should the economic advantages of these farming operations accrue to other countries if they could accrue here?" she asks. "We would like to be the leaders in establishing what the environmental standards should be globally, but right now we're not a player at the table."
As the federal agency charged with building aquaculture, NOAA-Fisheries has sunk cash—more than $3 million last year—into making the United States a player. Grants and loans have gone to hopeful fish farmers and researchers designing new cages to stand up to rougher seas offshore, where currents may supply cleaner water, and to solve disease and escape problems.
It plans to pay a New Hampshire company $289,774 to develop a U.S. strain of cod for farming.
But as near-shore fish farms clash with seaside residents and activist groups, NOAA-Fisheries thinks the only way fish farming can fulfill its promise is to move farther offshore.
Marine farming will take place in something called the Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ. It begins where state waters end, three miles from shore, and extends 200 miles from the coast. It lies under federal jurisdiction, yet no federal agency is entirely in charge of it.
That means fish farmers trying to set up shop crash into a bureaucratic wall: No federal law covers the leasing of ocean for fish farms or provides for environmental safeguards.
In 1987, a company called American Norwegian Fish Farms Inc. wanted to occupy 50 square miles of ocean 37 miles off Massachusetts and build 90 pens that would hold 45 million pounds of salmon. But, facing repeated regulatory struggles over several years, the company gave up.
The new blueprint for aquaculture would outline a straightforward process for the secretary of commerce to grant permits. It's unclear whether environmental standards that apply on land would extend offshore—or what controls would limit escapes, fecal waste and use of drugs. Salmon farms in operation worldwide face few restrictions on the management of huge volumes of waste. But the government would set up new standards through a public rule-making process, Chaves said.
Just as land grants encouraged settlers and railroads to develop the American West more than a century ago, rights to the sea are seen as a vital incentive to persuade fish farms to expand offshore.
An early draft of the new fish farming legislation, obtained by The Oregonian, authorizes the secretary of commerce to lease sections of ocean for fish farming for up to 20 years. Farmers would pay the government royalties of one-half of one percent of the sale price of their fish.
A report funded by NOAA-Fisheries suggests zoning the ocean, like national forests, into sections suited for commercial use, recreation and other purposes. Some regions might become "aquaculture parks"—after industrial parks on land—where many fish farms could operate together.
A possible location in the Northwest would be the Strait of Juan de Fuca, outside Puget Sound, said Dan Swecker, executive director of the Washington Fish Growers Association.
"If you could do it on a massive enough scale, it could be worthwhile," he says. "It would take major investment."
Fishing and recreational uses would likely be restricted in leased waters, creating perhaps the first example of a private business mandate for U.S. waters.
Farmers, the legislation says, must use "best available and safest technologies" to protect public health and the environment. But it offers a loophole rarely seen in federal regulation—the best technologies would not be required if incremental benefits are "clearly insufficient to justify" the costs.
Officials have since revised the legislation, but would not release the latest version until it is cleared by the administration.
Fishermen fear leasing will shut them out. Farming proponents say that's unlikely, however, since farms need not be big to be prolific.
"You can produce huge volumes of fish in a relatively small area," Chaves says. "I would be shocked, stunned and amazed if we ever had huge fish farms blanketing our EEZ."
But it is difficult to tell where the limits might be. NOAA-Fisheries, a branch of the Department of Commerce, is vying for the role of regulating ocean fish farming while also promoting it. The agency has made marine aquaculture a top priority for $6 million worth of grants in the next two years.
Some of that would go toward engineering cage systems that could stand up to battering by the sea. One of the pioneers is Ocean Spar Technologies of Bainbridge Island, Wash., which sells $100,000 saucer-like cages that remain submerged and can be tethered almost anywhere currents allow it. Almost 20 are in use around the world, and the cage has proved sturdier than the fish inside it, said aquaculture manager Langley Gace.
"It's like being in outer space," he said. "You're out away from everything, so you really have to plan ahead."
The ultimate obstacle to offshore fish farming, however, is higher cost. With salmon prices depressed by oversupply, companies are looking into more valuable species. As they move farms toward the horizon, they also may compensate by raising lots and lots of fish.
"The industry is going to develop whether we like it or not," says Chaves. "We would like to ensure it's done in an environmentally sound manner. We can't do that unless we're at the table."
Michael Milstein: 503-294-7689; email@example.com