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August 3, 2009

Lawmakers, Enviros Maneuver in Last-Gasp Bid to Block Deepwater Aquaculture

By ALLISON WINTER of Greenwire

With a deadline looming for approval of a federal plan that would open the Gulf of Mexico to deepwater fish farming, House lawmakers and conservationists are plotting strategies to block such offshore ventures until Congress creates a system to regulate them.

Democratic Rep. Gene Taylor (Miss.) introduced legislation last Friday that would prevent the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and regional fishery management councils from permitting offshore aquaculture under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management Act. The measure would invalidate existing permits and put future proposals for offshore fish farming on hold until Congress passes new legislation to oversee deepwater aquaculture.

The legislation has a powerful ally in Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), whose panel oversees fisheries issues. Rahall was one of three original co-sponsors of the bill. Environmental groups Ocean Conservancy and Food and Water Watch have also endorsed it.

The debate over whether to allow fish to be raised in deepwater nets and cages has heated up since a fishery management council approved what would be the first large permitting system earlier this year. The council used its authority under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management Act to make the decision in late January.

The gulf fisheries council developed its plan after lawmakers failed to advance a national permit system that the Bush administration pushed over the past three years. Rahall and other lawmakers rejected the Bush administration's proposal for not including enough safeguards for the environment and native fish.

Advocates for fish farming say aquaculture would take pressure off wild stocks, enhance recreational fishing opportunities and create new jobs in the United States, where about 80 percent of consumed seafood is imported -- about half of it raised through aquaculture. The gulf council has predicted that the plan would permit between five and 20 offshore operations in the next 10 years, producing up to 64 million pounds of seafood.

But before going forward, the gulf proposal must be approved by the Commerce Department. The public comment deadline for the decision ends today, and the department is expected to make a decision in the coming weeks.

NOAA has representatives on each fishing council, and most council actions receive approval from the agency.

But marine advocates have been hoping that NOAA might take a different course for the offshore fish farms. Conservationists maintain that such farms could harm the environment, put native fish at risk and pollute oceans with fish waste and excess food. The plan has been criticized by more than 100 environmental and fishing organizations.

If any offshore aquaculture program is to go forward, marine advocates and Capitol Hill Democrats have said it should be a nationwide permitting system with well-defined environmental safeguards -- which they think the gulf plan is lacking.

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke has said the Obama administration would like to create a national permitting system for offshore fish farms in an effort to create jobs and help feed a nation that currently imports most of its seafood. But Locke and NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco have indicated that if the administration went forward with a national plan, it would include environmental standards.

In a 2007 article in the journal Science, Lubchenco endorsed a report from a blue-ribbon panel that recommended a strict regulatory system to govern offshore operations. And at her confirmation hearing last winter, the marine scientist-cum-government administrator said that scientists and policymakers have not yet identified the "right conditions under which aquaculture is sustainable."

But Lubchenco has not indicated what she intends to do about the gulf council's plan.

"I think the issues are who should be making the rules, who should be in charge, and we haven't yet worked through those issues in this administration," Lubchenco said in an interview last month.

Frustration with Obama admin

Marine advocates, who expected the Obama administration to be more friendly to their cause, have been frustrated that Lubchenco and the National Marine Fisheries Service have not taken a more active position on offshore aquaculture.

"It is very disturbing that the NMFS has not come out with a policy on offshore aquaculture," said Marianne Cufone, director of the fisheries program for Food and Water Watch. "We were anticipating to hear a different take on things."

Last week, Cufone and other activists, clad in tall chef's hats, marched around the Commerce Department building in downtown Washington, protesting the proposed Gulf of Mexico plan. The group threw out organic lollipops and chanted through a bullhorn: "Need more solutions, not more pollution! What do we want? Sustainable seafood! When do we want it? Now!"

Some Commerce employees looked down out of their windows to see what the commotion was about. Many NOAA employees are based at a different office building in Silver Spring, Md.

But given the uncertainty on NOAA's action on the gulf plan, Taylor's bill would pre-empt the agency. It would separate aquaculture from existing fishing regulations, forcing a national permitting plan if any offshore aquaculture were to move forward.

"As common sense indicates and Representative Taylor's bill makes abundantly clear, aquaculture is simply not fishing," said George Leonard, director of Ocean Conservancy's aquaculture program. "If passed, [the bill] will stop the dangerous piecemeal approach currently under way."

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