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Ensuring a Sustainable Future for U.S. Ocean Fish Farming

Posted: 12/17/09 10:12 PM ET

With all eyes on the climate deliberations in Copenhagen, it is more important than ever to find innovative ways of reducing agriculture's contribution to global climate change. The livestock industry in particular has helped feed the world but at a significant cost to the environment, including generating large emissions of greenhouse gas.

One promising solution is to substitute fish production for meat production. But to do so we must ensure that the "blue revolution" in ocean fish farming does not lead to the same suite of environmental problems that have accompanied the "green revolution" for land-based agriculture. Americans' appetite for fish continues to grow and is increasingly met by a year-round supply of fresh fish imported into our marketplace. Yet few Americans know where their fish comes from or how it was produced. Just as most chickens, pigs and cows are raised in tightly confined, intensive operations, so too are many fish.

Right now in the United States we have an opportunity to help ensure that the emerging marine aquaculture sector meets both human and environmental needs. This week, Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) will introduce in the House of Representatives a bill called the National Sustainable Offshore Aquaculture Act that addresses the potential threats of poorly regulated fish farming in U.S. ocean waters. These threats include spread of disease and parasites from farmed to wild fish; discharge of effluents into surrounding waters; misuse of antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals and chemicals; escape of farmed fish into wild fish habitat; killing of marine mammals and sharks that might prey on ocean farm cages; and reliance on use of wild-caught fish in aquaculture feeds, which could deplete food supplies for other marine life and the aquaculture industry itself over time.

These environmental impacts have been evident in many other countries with intensive marine fish farming. The recent collapse of salmon aquaculture in Chile, where industry expansion was prioritized over environmental protection, is the most glaring example. Salmon, one of Chile's leading exports, has suffered a major blow as a result of poor regulation and environmentally unsound management. Tens of thousands of people are now jobless in southern Chile, where the salmon farming industry once boomed.

There are three critical points to be made about the Capps bill. First, unlike previous attempts to legislate on fish farming at the national level, the bill would ensure that U.S. aquaculture adopts a science-based, precautionary approach that establishes a priority for the protection of wild fish and functional ecosystems. This approach is consistent with President Obama's recent call to develop a comprehensive and integrated plan to manage our ocean's many competing uses to ensure protection of vital ecosystem services in years to come.

Second, the Capps bill would preempt the emergence of ecologically risky, piecemeal regulation of ocean fish farming in different regions of the U.S. Efforts are already afoot in Hawaii, California, the Gulf of Mexico and New England to expand marine aquaculture without consistent standards to govern their environmental or social performance. If these piecemeal regional initiatives move forward, there will be little hope of creating a sustainable national policy for U.S. open-ocean aquaculture.

Finally, the Capps bill as currently written has a solid, long-term vision for the appropriate role of fish farming in sustainable ocean ecosystems and thus should win widespread support among environmental and fishing constituencies. It should also garner support from the more progressive end of the aquaculture industry that aspires to sustainable domestic fish production.

Previous federal bills introduced in 2005 and 2007 were fundamentally flawed -- and thus rightly criticized -- because they put the goal of aquaculture expansion far above that of environmental protection. Now, for the first time, a bill has been introduced that would demonstrably protect our ocean ecosystems, fishing communities and seafood consumers from the risks of poorly regulated open-ocean aquaculture.

Rep. Capps and her colleagues are to be commended. Now is the time for the new leadership in Washington -- at the White House and at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- to embrace this more science-based and precautionary approach to ensure a sustainable future for U.S. ocean aquaculture.

Rosamond L. Naylor is director of the Program on Food Security and the Environment at Stanford University. George H. Leonard is director of the Aquaculture Program at the Ocean Conservancy.