Obama admin hands offshore aquaculture oversight to NOAA

The Obama administration will develop federal aquaculture regulations, including a system that could permit offshore fish farming in the ocean waters for the first time, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said today.

Locke addressed a Senate hearing as another Cabinet agency, the Interior Department, turned away from a controversial Bush administration proposal that would have expedited a permitting system for offshore aquaculture under the Minerals Management Service. He said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will oversee the preparation of the Obama administration's fish-farming guidelines.

In its final rule for offshore renewable energy projects, released yesterday, Interior said it would not authorize aquaculture projects. The move is a reversal from the Bush administration's proposal, which would have opened the door for the government to fast-track offshore fish farms.

The new rule passes oversight of any deepwater fish farms to Commerce's NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service. But Locke made it clear today that the administration is not giving up on efforts to advance aquaculture that started under the Bush administration, although his department may take a different course.

"As wild fish stocks decline, it is important to be able to have more aquaculture," Locke told the Senate Appropriations panel overseeing funding for his department. "NOAA needs to engage in a program to set up criteria and rules in which safe aquaculture can be provided. We intend to pursue this and help provide those guidelines."


In remarks to reporters after the hearing, Locke said the government must develop guidelines and policies for all aquaculture, including offshore fish farms. "It has to be done carefully, especially given the concerns of consumers for safe seafood," Locke said.

The Bush administration made several attempts, starting in 2005, to create a permitting system to expand U.S. aquaculture to as far as 200 miles offshore. The proposals did not gain traction on Capitol Hill, because lawmakers said they feared there were not enough safeguards to protect wild fish.

The issue surfaced again earlier this year when a federal fisheries council in the Gulf of Mexico voted to open its waters to offshore fish farms -- a proposal that must go through NOAA for final approval.

Locke and NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco have indicated that if they move forward with new regulations, they intend to have more safeguards. Lubchenco said at her confirmation hearing that scientists and policymakers have not yet identified the "right conditions under which aquaculture is sustainable."

Bush's failed bid for offshore permits

The Bush administration's last attempt to advance offshore fish farms came in a 405-page proposal for renewable energy that the administration put forward last July. The rules govern the leasing of ocean tracts in federal waters for wind projects and hydropower projects that would harness waves and currents.

Bush's MMS tucked in a provision that would have also allowed "alternate" uses of offshore facilities -- including deep ocean ports or aquaculture.

House Democrats and environmental groups maligned Bush's proposal, saying MMS lacks authority and expertise for such permitting. They blasted the provision as an indirect way for the Bush administration to advance an agenda for offshore aquaculture that it had failed to move through Congress.

The Obama administration's final rule, slated for publication in the Federal Register on April 29, clearly states that any efforts to develop offshore fish farms should come in their own regulations.

"We wish to clarify that this rule does not authorize aquaculture operations," the rule states. "A different agency would be responsible for permitting and managing actual aquaculture activity ... in the event that legislation is enacted that regulates OCS aquaculture, we will reassess this issue and ensure coordination will be accomplished with all relevant agencies."

Environmental groups applauded the change. Food and Water Watch attorney Zach Corrigan said the rules -- the first time Obama's Interior said "clearly and definitely" that offshore fish farms were not a part of the plan -- were a major improvement.

National Marine Fisheries Service spokeswoman Monica Allen said the agency is just beginning to analyze the new Interior rule but plans to move forward with its own offshore fish farm proposal.

"Concerning offshore aquaculture, it is one of a number of important issues that the new administration is reviewing," Allen said.

Senior reporter Ben Geman contributed.

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