The Fish Farming Sham

The Fish Farming Sham

First, you need to try to picture it: thousands of tuna, salmon, cod, and other species being bred in steel cages up to 200 miles offshore, across 3.4 million acres of ocean (about the land area of the lower 48 states).

That's the legislation recently put forward by the Bush Administration, a fish-farming "panacea" aimed at replacing all the wild fish runs that have been so badly over-harvested. It's also an attempt at reducing the 70 percent of seafood that the U.S. now imports every year, thus helping shrink our trade deficit. Besides which, aquacultural pioneers (subsidized by U.S. taxpayers) will reap all those benefits from their industry growing by a factor of five, to a projected $5-billion, over the next two decades.

Meantime, the Commerce Secretary would only need to put forward specific environmental safeguards "if necessary." After all, offshore is out-of-sight, out-of-mind - for what would essentially be one big ocean feedlot.

Stanford economist Rosamond Naylor has estimated that such an expanded industry in U.S. waters would create as much nitrogen discharge as untreated sewage from more than 17 million people (or the entire North Carolina hog industry). Yet not even national marine sanctuaries would be off-limits. That, says biologist Rebecca Goldberg of Environmental Defense, is akin to "putting industrial hog farms in national parks."

Consider what's already been witnessed with inshore aquaculture operations: farm-raised fish getting loose to spread disease and parasites, or compete for food and interbreed with their wild cousins. Think about the fact that it requires as much as three pounds of wild fish - ground-up and added into the feed - for every pound produced of farmed salmon. Not to mention all the antibiotics needed to minimize disease in fish packed so closely together.

This looks more like a recipe for disaster than a way to alleviate what's happening to our beleaguered fisheries. It doesn't seem accidental that the Bush bill coincided with the National Oceans Protection Act submitted by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). Among many other promising proposals, Boxer's bill would prohibit the federal government from issuing any leases for fish farms in the ocean until national standards are written that consider the downside risks.