On Friday afternoon, February 12th, twelve fishing and public interest groups jointly sued the federal government, challenging new regulations allowing industrial fish farming in the federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), under the Department of Commerce are agencies charged with protecting and managing ocean resources. The groups allege the agencies overextended their authority in creating a permitting scheme for ocean fish farming.
The questionable federal permitting scheme, more than ten years in the making, is an attempt to do an end-run around the United States Congress: multiple national bills that would have allowed and regulated industrial aquaculture never made it into law in the past decade. In an effort to push offshore aquaculture forward without a new law permitting it, NOAA and NMFS decided they would try to regulate fishing under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the main federal law that controls fishing, and now plan to permit offshore aquaculture as a “fishing” activity.
Finalized in January 2016, the regulations will allow up to 20 industrial facilities and collectively 64 million pounds of fish to be produced each year in the Gulf of Mexico. This is the same amount of wild fish currently caught from the Gulf of Mexico annually (excluding menhaden, a fish used mainly in pharmaceuticals, and pet and fish feed, not for direct human consumption), so farmed fish would essentially double offerings and flood the market.
Fishing communities, conservation organizations, consumer groups, scientists and many others are very concerned about the regulations to allow this new industry. The global experience with open water aquaculture has been riddled with serious problems – water pollution, fish escaping, habitat damage, spread of disease and parasites and more.
With the Gulf of Mexico still recovering from the worst oil spill in U.S. history, and existing issues like a large dead zone and run-off pollution, allowing development of aquaculture in the Gulf to many seems irresponsible and unnecessary. Especially given that there are other more sustainable ways to increase availability of domestic seafood without risking harm to the natural environment or competing with commercial fishermen.
Recirculating farms raise fish in aquarium like tanks, located on land. They reuse waste and water, and are closed loop, so they avoid many of the problems associated with open water farms – escapes are very difficult and there is no pollution of the surrounding environment, as everything in system is recycled. Further, because they are not attached to natural waters, a wide range of fish can be raised, to avoid competition with local fishermen.
The groups are challenging the new regulations allowing industrial aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).