First-ever federal rules for offshore fish farming issued

New Orleans, January 12

The first-ever federal regulations for large-scale fish farming in the ocean were issued on Monday, opening a new frontier in the harvesting of popular seafood species such as red drum, tuna and red snapper.

The new rules allow the farming of fish in federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The rules — in the making for years — were announced in New Orleans by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan said the Gulf rules could spur similar rules in other US waters. She said it was time for the United States to open up this new market, which she said could help the US meet its seafood demands.

Fish farming is contentious, with fishermen and environmentalists warning it could harm the marine environment and put fishermen out of work.

Typically, offshore farming is done by breeding fish in large semi-submersible pens moored to the seafloor. The practice is common in many parts of the world, and Sullivan said the United States has fallen behind. About 90 per cent of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported and more than half of that is farmed, she noted.

She said expanding fish farming has numerous benefits.

“It’s good for the balance of trade, it’s good for the food security of the country,” she said. She said it could create jobs, too.

The new rules allow up to 20 fish farms to open in the Gulf and produce 64 million pounds of fish a year. The farms can start applying for 10-year permits starting in February, she said.

Sullivan said the fish farms would be kept away from sensitive habitats and fishermen would be allowed to fish near them. She envisioned little competition between the farms and fishermen.

Neil Sims, president of Ocean Stewards Institute, an offshore industry group, said the rules were ground-breaking.

He said concerns about fish farming causing environmental problems are unfounded. “The beauty of open ocean aquaculture is that you are in deep water far offshore,” he said. “It’s more akin to a Colorado cattle range than a feedlot.”

Rather than import farmed seafood, he said, the nation would be better off producing more of its own.