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Posted on Feb 3, 2009 in Top Shots
Fish Farms: Fortune or Fiasco?

You might not think the words "fish farm" would evoke a great emotional reaction, but let me tell you, some serious sturm und drang went down at last week's Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meeting with what has proved to be quite a hot-button issue: Should the federal government allow large aquaculture facilities to operate in federal Gulf waters?

A host of environmental NGO's and commercial-fishermen's groups said "No!" Nevertheless, the council fairly resoundingly (in an 11-5 vote, interestingly split along gender lines with guys carrying the issue) said, "Yes!"

Opponents of the concept argued that the government is rushing into this, without sufficient safeguards for the environment as well as existing fisheries, and that it shouldn't be done piecemeal - one region at a time - but as a larger, more well-thought-out national policy. (Though by the time that happened, the Gulf might freeze over; two such bills never made it out of Congressional committee.)

I haven't heard recreational interests weigh in very heavily on the issue. Perhaps many of those aware of it are, like me, of two minds (though some have accuse me of being of no mind, often). Although I realize it's probably a simplistic notion, it would be nice to think large-scale fish farming might take a lot of the pressure off recreationally valuable game fish such as red snapper (one of the prime candidates for farming, incidentally) and ultimately lead to more fish and less restrictive regulations.

On the other hand, what about feeding all these carnivores (cobia and AJ would be likely species to raise as well)? A number of large farms may increase the natural carrying capacity of the Gulf for high-level predators but there must also be an increase in forage. Most likely this would mean even more pressure on Gulf menhaden stocks that already seem to be fished pretty unmercifully. Then are questions of the spread of disease borne of so many fish living packed into small areas as well as escaped fish, and so on.

But the Gulf Council points to a 400-plus-page guide it prepared on aquaculture, addressing most of these concerns in explicit detail. (For example, no species could be raised if not already native to the Gulf.)

In any case, despite the council's strong pro-aquaculture vote, don't start looking for fish farms out in the near future. The council's plan still awaits approve by the U.S. Dept. of Commerce. Even applying for permits is unlikely before 2010 and that requires environmental impact statements and other bureaucratic hurdles. Also, startup will take big bucks and, at this point, at least, no big-money firms have formed a queue to start huge fish farms.

So it will probably be a couple years or more before the Gulf sees any fish farms. Maybe by then I can make up my mind where I stand on this.

(If you've already made up your mind, I'd be interested: Chime in at