Farming Fish: Has Federal Policy Gone Out to Sea?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has filed a final rule that permits open ocean fish farming in federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico. NOAA claims that this type of fish farming, also known as aquaculture, will "provide a domestic source of sustainable fish protein and create jobs." However, several groups, including Food and Water Watch and the Recirculating Farms Coalition issued a statement concluding that open ocean aquaculture operations "threaten fishing communities," are "outdated and unnecessary" and "risk the health and welfare of communities, the environment and wildlife." To find out more about their opposition to the rule, I reached out to Marianne Cufone, the executive director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition.

NOAA says that allowing fish farming in federal water will "provide a domestic source of sustainable fish protein and create jobs." What's your reaction? This makes no sense at all. Here's why - we actually import and export some of the very same fish. We send wild-caught quality fish to other counties that will pay more for fish caught in US waters in accord with health, safety and labor standards that are often better than many other countries. We import lower quality, farmed or less-sustainably caught fish because consumers are sadly often less thoughtful about where their seafood comes from in the US. We should first think about keeping more of our own fish in the US, and if we want farm-raised fish - we should do it with minimal impact to the environment and fishing communities - that means not raising fish in open water pens.

NOAA's statement uses the word 'sustainable' four times. What is your view regarding the sustainability of open ocean fish farming? It's not in the least bit 'sustainable.' Pollution is a major concern. Think about hundreds, potentially thousands of fish, eating, excreting and growing in a cage. Excess feed, fish waste, any antibiotics or other chemicals used on the fish or cages - all goes straight into our natural waters. Additionally, it wastes resources like time and fuel - these operations are planned for "federal waters" which means far offshore. This means burning gas and oil to get to and from the cages with supplies, fish food and more and also lots of time back and forth in transit.

Recirculating land based systems are sustainable. They can run on alternate energy and use collected rain water (depending on location). They reuse water and even waste right in their own system. They are closed-loop, so there's much less risk of escaped fish. Being contained also means it is less likely that disease and parasites will get in, so they can run without chemicals and antibiotics. We add nothing to our own farm except what we feed the fish. These farms are on land and so usually they don't take up public space - an all-around win.

How could permitted open ocean aquaculture affect the development or viability of more sustainable systems? I think it won't. Eventually, open water aquaculture will crash and burn - there are always major problems and I think eventually other agencies or even a smart President will recognize that and shut it down. The problem is that it may happen too late. The Gulf of Mexico is already struggling with a seasonal dead zone about the size of New Jersey. And the Gulf suffered from the worst oil spill in the history of the United States just six years ago, and we are still just discovering some of the long term effects. This was all following several violent storms - some that pulled entire oil platforms from their moorings to shore! To add industrial aquaculture to the Gulf is wholly irresponsible and absolutely unnecessary.

What do you plan on doing now that the permitting program is in place? Several organizations are analyzing legal options. I expect to see at least one challenge to the new regulations soon.


Some of the answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.