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Administration issues new rules for fish farms

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The Obama administration released new guidelines that would make it easier to farm fish in federal waters, a move that could transform the nation’s coasts and the food Americans will consume in years to come.

The proposal, which sparked immediate criticism from some environmental groups, aims to increase the amount of farm-raised seafood in the United States by authorizing regional fisheries management councils to approve aquaculture operations off the coasts and in the Gulf of Mexico.

Currently there are no fish farms in federal waters, only in the three-mile band of state waters. Some operators have applied to build fish farms in federal waters in the past, but none have won approval yet.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service officials said new ventures could ease fishing pressures on wild stocks and cut the nation’s seafood imports.

The new policy, released late Thursday, underscores the extent to which the United States and other nations are struggling to find enough seafood to supply their growing populations. Aquaculture — in which operators cultivate everything from oysters, mussels and algae to top predators such as salmon — now accounts for roughly half the fish consumed, as the world’s wild stocks continue to dwindle.

But it has also raised serious environmental questions, ranging from whether raising carnivorous fish ends up depleting forage fish stocks to concerns about farmed fish escaping and mixing with wild species.

Michael Rubino, who directs the aquaculture program for NOAA Fisheries, said the rules seek to address the fact that the United States currently has a $9 billion seafood trade deficit. Eighty-four percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported, and half of it is cultivated rather than caught.

Referring to the Agriculture Department’s new dietary guidelines released this month, Rubino said: “USDA is asking us to eat twice as much seafood. Where is that going to come from? . . . There aren’t going to be large numbers of fish farms out there anytime soon. But it’s coming.”

The aquaculture guidelines, which have been in the works for a year and a half, greenlight fish farms in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere. They apply the nation’s traditional fishery management laws — which were originally crafted to set criteria for how much wild fish can be caught in a season — to aquaculture.

Rubino said the agency must rely on existing fisheries law because Congress has not passed legislation tailored toward farm-raised fish. “It wasn’t designed for aquaculture but it can be used for aquaculture,” Rubino said.

But George Leonard, director of aquaculture for the Ocean Conservancy, an advocacy group, said the idea of using the same laws that apply to wild-caught fish is equivalent to “a square peg in a round hole,” adding it was “nonsensical” to apply the same yield calculations to operations where fish are grown from the start.

The new policy comes just as two groups, Australia’s WorldFish Center and the U.S. advocacy group Conservation International, are about to release the first global assessment of aquaculture next week. Their analysis found that out of the 75 species they surveyed, raising more fish translated into greater environmental damage, but this impact was less harmful when compared with raising livestock.

China and the rest of Asia account for 91 percent of the world’s cultivated seafood, the report found, while North America produces just 1.9 percent. The researchers found that raising eel, salmon, shrimp and prawns had the biggest environmental impact because of the energy and amount of fish feed required to produce them, while mussels, oysters, clams and seaweed had the smallest impact.

“There are a number of well-founded concerns about aquaculture, in terms of its impacts on marine ecosystems and wild fisheries,” said Sebastian Troeng, Conservation International’s vice president for marine conservation.

“But with global fisheries reaching alarming and unprecedented levels of depletion, fish cultivation versus wild fish capture has to be considered.”

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