Ocean conservation experts are calling the Obama Administration's decision to allow large-scale aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico a big mistake. The branch of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration responsible for fisheries management chose not to halt a plan to allow commercial fish farming in the Gulf of Mexico, but did promise to publish a national policy on aquaculture soon. In its announcement, NOAA wrote:
"Domestic U.S. aquaculture is a safe and critical component of the U.S. seafood supply. A more robust sustainable aquaculture industry will increase the locally grown seafood supply and provide new economic opportunities for U.S. coastal communities. Currently, 84 percent of the U.S. seafood supply is imported, and about half of those imports are from aquaculture."
Prominent environmental organizations spoke out against the decision.
Open-ocean fish farms pose significant environmental threats to our marine ecosystems. Approval of offshore aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico without the establishment of science-based and precautionary national standards is a recipe for disaster," said Christopher Mann, senior officer at the Pew Environment Group. Theres no shortage of scientific evidence showing the serious damage caused by large-scale aquaculture to marine environments. Disease and pollution from the discharge of untreated waste continue to plague fish farms worldwide. And the use of wild fish in aquaculture feeds puts additional pressure on struggling fish stocks."
Food & Water Watch, which questioned the legality of the decision, was even harsher in its assessment:
Today, the very agency tasked with conservation and management of our national fish resources, National Marine Fisheries Service, failed to protect fishing communities and the marine environment by allowing an unpopular and potentially harmful ocean fish farming plan for the Gulf of Mexico to pass into effect," said Food & Water Watch Fish Program Director Marianne Cufone. "NMFS was involved for the entire five years this plan was under discussion, and had since January of 2009 to decide whether ocean fish farming is the right thing to do for the Gulf. Time for indecision ran out today. Rather than taking a stand, the agency looked the other way and chose to stay silent, letting the plan pass by default. The agencys silence is a choice in itself: to allow development of what are essentially factory farms of the seadirty, crowded mass-production facilities that can harm the environment and produce lower-quality fish for consumers. The plan lacks specifics about important issues: unknown types of facilities will be able to grow unspecified types of fish in locations approved by NMFS on a case-by-case basis, from three to 200 miles offshore in the Gulf. The development of these facilities will likely cause major ecological problems, and could undercut prices local fishermen receive for their catch, threatening an already vulnerable job market."
Food and Water Watch pointed to a 2008 Government Accountability Office report about the problems associated with open ocean aquaculture. Namely: "flow of concentrated amounts of fish food, wastes, and any chemicals or antibiotics that may be used in farms straight into ocean waters; escaped farmed fish intermixing with or outcompeting wild fish for food and habitat; the spread of parasites and disease to wild populations; effects on predators and marine mammals, and others."
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