Monday, December 28, 2009

Aquafarming Standards: new U.S. legislation to clean up a mess

I have mentioned in several past posts, my enthusiasm for the development of responsible aquafarming, also called aquaculture. It comes from a simple realization that man has learned to raise cattle and poultry to feed its population through the understanding that the continued taking of wild animals would not suffice.

Unfortunately, centuries ago, man did not make that same intellectual leap when it came to seafood. And we have been, as Dr. Sylvia Earle describes it, eating ocean "bushmeat" ever since, all to the ultimate detriment of the ocean's ecology.

But there are some very serious challenges that aquafarming must overcome for it to be truly commercially successful without harming the environment. This requires the cautious and well-thought out use of science and technology to insure maximum yield will also protecting the environment within which the aquafarm exists. Once you determine just how it is to be done right, then there must be regulations and enforcement to insure it is done properly. This requires government oversight and this is where it can get a bit tricky.

The Ocean Conservancy has an excellent article explaining the problems in developing national standards for aquafarming. Currently, there are several issues of concern regarding aquafarming: ocean pollution due to feed waste, fish waste, and medications; keeping farmed fished contained and not entering a wild fish population accidentally; responsibility for the maintenance and/or dismantling of an aquafarm (dismantling due perhaps to severe ocean weather or storms); and impacts on other fish populations that are required to act as feed sources for the farms. Many of these issues could be regulated by several different agencies but, without a unifying national policy of standards, we're only setting ourselves up for a bureaucratic nightmare with overlapping agencies, jurisdictions, criteria, and responsibilities.

According to the Ocean Conservancy, one of the last acts of the Bush Administration was to put forward a U.S. plan to increase aquafarming from $900 million to $5 billion by 2025. This plan provided for the National Marine Fisheries Service to issue permits to meet the goal but did not specifically or clearly address how it was to be done responsibly, ie: regulation and enforcement. Pollution or water quality issues would be handled by one agency, often using terrestrial standards in place of a non-existent marine standard; environmental impacts would be handled by another, and so on. It was basically putting the cart before the horse, and many scientific, conservation, public advocacy and even commercial fishing groups objected. This stalled the roll out of the plan, halting it on several occasions, but it was eventually put into place in September of 2009 - flaws and all.

Earlier this month, California Representative Lois Capps introduced The National Sustainable Offshore Aquaculture Act of 2009 (H.R. 4363). According to Representative Capps' office, the submitted piece of legislation will,

"Establish an overarching, federal regulatory system for offshore aquaculture that includes standardized, precautionary measures to protect the environment and coastal communities. The key provisions of the legislation include:

1. Establishing a clear, streamlined regulatory process for offshore aquaculture with specific provisions and permit terms to protect marine ecosystems and coastal communities;

2. Requiring coordinated, regional programmatic environmental impact statements to provide regulatory certainty, ensure environmental protection for sensitive marine areas, and reduce conflicts among competing uses of the marine environment; and

3. Authorizing new funds for research to provide the crucial feedback needed for adaptive, environmentally-sound management of this new use of offshore waters."

Right now, this is just proposed legislation, newly introduced. Watch how it develops and stay on top of the efforts of groups, like the Ocean Conservancy, in retracting the current piecemeal plan. And you can expect to hear more in this blog as I continue to promote aquafarming as our best chance at attaining sustainable commercial seafood levels while protecting the ocean's wild populations from decline and possible extinction.

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