FISHERIES

NOAA opens federal waters to commercial fish farms

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is opening federal waters to commercial aquaculture, releasing a final rule yesterday that will allow companies to set up fish farms in the Gulf of Mexico.

The rule is central to NOAA's push to expand the role of aquaculture in the nation's seafood supply (Greenwire, Nov. 20, 2014). The Gulf will serve as the first step, signaling the agency's intention to take a more central role in regulating an industry still in its nascent phase.

In a press release, NOAA emphasized that the plan could "open the door" for other regions.

"As demand for seafood continues to rise, aquaculture presents a tremendous opportunity not only to meet this demand, but also to increase opportunities for the seafood industry and job creation," NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan said in a statement. "Expanding U.S. aquaculture in federal waters complements wild harvest fisheries and supports our efforts to maintain sustainable fisheries and resilient oceans."

The Gulf plan comes after years of false starts. The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council first approved an aquaculture plan in 2009 and sent it to NOAA to implement.

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But NOAA did not propose regulations until 2014. Yesterday's final rule allows the council to manage aquaculture as it does fish stocks.

Environmental groups have objected to the idea in the past, voicing concerns over allowing regions to test out aquaculture rather than releasing a nationwide framework. Critics also worry that such farms could compete with fishermen or affect the wild species they harvest.

But opposition has waned in recent years. Today's most vocal critics come from food safety groups that assert that standards aren't strong enough.

In announcing the final rule, NOAA emphasized the environmental precautions it will take. Farms are prohibited in marine protection areas and coral reef habitat. Permits require ongoing monitoring and inspections, and farmers will only be allowed to raise native species such as red drum, cobia and almaco jack. The rule also prohibits genetically engineered fish.

Up to 20 farms will be able to set up giant cages in federal waters, each with a 10-year permit that is renewable in five-year increments. Permit holders will be allowed to also maintain a hatchery.

The aim is to prove that such farms can be environmentally sustainable. In 2013, NOAA released a technical paper that provided guidelines for minimizing negative effects. Limiting farms to native fish, for example, reduces risk if fish escape. And putting farms in deep, well-flushed waters can prevent buildups of nitrogen and phosphorus from cages that contain tens of thousands of fish.

NOAA's final rule also puts in place a regulatory structure that hasn't existed before. Until now, commercial farms that wanted to set up shop in federal waters had no blueprint.

The Army Corps of Engineers approved three offshore mussel farms last year, but a recent report warned that the agency does not have adequate expertise to consider competing ocean uses and environmental impacts (Greenwire, June 5). The corps and U.S. EPA are now considering a fourth application for a fish farm in federal waters off California, according to NOAA.

Currently, no farm has begun to operate in federal waters. States host the nation's aquaculture, generating $1.4 billion in value in 2013.

"This is all about managing and expanding seafood farming in an environmentally sound and economically sustainable way," Michael Rubino, director of NOAA's Office of Aquaculture, said in a statement. "The permit process we've laid out accounts for the region's unique needs and opens the door for other regions to follow suit."

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