The Gulf of Mexico—and the many people that care about and depend on it for their livelihoods — have taken a beating in recent years; major hurricanes and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill continue to cause long term problems. Even as Gulf fisheries struggle to recover from the devastating impacts from these catastrophes, a new threat looms on the horizon, unbelievably from the very government agency tasked with protecting our U.S. marine resources.
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is the federal agency responsible for conserving and managing U.S. fisheries. It has been pushing for years to allow open water aquaculture – the farming of fin fish in ocean and Gulf waters – all around the U.S. Overwhelming public opposition has to date stopped all attempts by NMFS to push through a national law allowing ocean fish farms in U.S. waters. So the agency has turned to a much less public, legally questionable way to ram through regulations allowing fish farming – with the Gulf of Mexico as the first test site.
Last month, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, one of eight regional councils that act as advisory bodies to NMFS on all things fish and fishing, approved a plan to allow open ocean fish farming in the Gulf. The plan now goes to NMFS for final approval – which could come very soon – then it becomes law. Between five and twenty industrial fish farms will be permitted and could raise up to 64 million pounds of fish each year in the Gulf of Mexico.
To someone unfamiliar with the pitfalls of ocean fish farming, this may sound like a positive development. Seafood is a very popular menu item, and wild fish populations are struggling under pressures of pollution, algal blooms and consumer demand for fish. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, starting this year, the world will consume more farmed fish than wild fish. Aquaculture is increasingly necessary to feed a growing human population, so more fish farms must be a good thing, right?
Not when it comes to open ocean fish farming, unfortunately. As they currently operate, these facilities can be harmful to both marine ecosystems and local economies.
To understand the major problems associated with ocean fish farms, it’s important to picture one: thousands of fish trapped in massive cages, eating, excreting and growing. Fish feed, antibiotics and other chemicals can be regularly pumped into the pens, and the excess washed into the surrounding waters, causing a wide range of changes in the local ecosystem. Farmed fish frequently escape, thanks to inclement weather, predators causing damage to pens, or even human error or equipment failure. Escaped fish can spread disease and parasites to wild fish and out-compete them for food, habitat and mates. As a result, ocean fish farms can threaten the health of the same wild fish populations that supposedly would benefit from reduced fishing pressure thanks to increased availability of farmed fish.
Harm to wild fish and their habitat, of course, means economic harm to the fishermen too. In addition to perhaps a reduced abundance of wild fish thanks to pollution and other problems with ocean fish farms, local fishermen are also undercut by these aquaculture operations, which can sell their industrially produced fish at lower prices.
Fish farming and commercial fishing can coexist. Fish farms need to move out of ocean waters and move on land instead. Recirculating aquaculture (raising fish in tanks on land) and aquaponics (raising fish and plants together in the same closed-loop, land-based system) are two alternative, eco-friendly fish farming methods. By operating away from natural waters, recirculating fish farms prevent escapes, and waste can be collected and in many cases even reused. In addition, land-based farms can raise a wide variety of fish and therefore need not compete with fishermen catching popular local fish. The result is what everyone wants—more fresh, local fish—without massive environmental or economic harm.
The Gulf Council’s plan, by contrast, promotes a method of aquaculture that is harmful and outdated. And it ultimately undermines the Council’s own mission – to protect the health of wild fish stocks, for their continued sustainability and for the benefit of everyone who depends on them. The decision to allow open ocean aquaculture in the very fragile Gulf is a failure of that duty, and NMFS should not move forward with permitting open water fish farms in the Gulf of Mexico – or anywhere else.