No sooner had the ink dried on a recent ruling by the US government to allow offshore aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico than a lawsuit challenging the decision was filed in Louisiana district court claiming that the government failed to address many issues including adequate safeguards to protect wild fish stocks.
The legal complaint, filed by twelve organizations representing fishery interests and environmental and food safety groups, alleges that industrial aquaculture is sufficiently different from fishing that National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) does not hold permitting authority over its regulation. Rather, the complainants believe that it should be regulated more like farming practices.
NMFS, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), for its part, counters that all offshore fisheries, including aquaculture, are most appropriately regulated under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management and Conservation Act.
In February, NMFS’ Deputy Assistant Administrator for Regulatory Programs, Sam Rauch, reportedly testified before the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard that, while setting optimum yield for aquaculture is “a little awkward,” the agency feels that the Magnuson-Stevens Act provides sufficient statutory authority for managing offshore aquaculture.
The complaint by opponents to the ruling argues that the FMP does not adequately address how aquaculture will affect the survival of wild fish. Opponents’ major concerns are that escapes from ocean fish farms could affect wild populations through genetic modification or disease, and that operations will adversely affect the environment through waste and chemical contamination.
NMFS has long argued that the regulatory reporting requirements minimize such risks, and that permitting operations will benefit the nation by increasing the supply of in-demand local species such as snappers, groupers, red drum, cobia, and jacks.
Industry representatives back the government's assertions.
"The marine aquaculture fishery management plan that provides a framework to culture fish managed by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council represents a long anticipated opportunity for fish farmers," Mike Freeze, President of the National Aquaculture Association, told Aquaculture North America.
"It is unfortunate that these regulations have attracted a legal challenge," he added. "The fishery management plan combined with environmental protection permits from the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, National
Marine Fisheries Service, and comments from the coastal states on federal permits, as required by the Coastal Zone Management Act, create a global standard of excellence to protect or conserve water quality, habitat and species."
The success of National Marine Fisheries Service and federal fishery management councils to sustainably manage wild fishery stocks, he explained, "is a clear indicator that these federal regulations work and we hope that the opportunity to grow high-quality fish will happen."
— Erich Luening