GULF OF MEXICO — President Barack Obama’s administration said yesterday it supports the farming of fish in federal waters, but that the practice needs to be done in a safe and scientifically sound manner.
In the Gulf of Mexico, businesses have proposed growing fish on unused oil and natural gas platforms. Farming fish along the coast and even far out in the ocean is becoming a common practice around the world, but it has not taken off in U.S. waters. About half of seafood worldwide is farmed, most of it on land or close to shore.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration yesterday announced a preliminary policy framework for regulating aquaculture operations in coastal and offshore waters. Final guidelines will come later, after a public comment period that ends April 11.
The NOAA policy said innovations to the aquaculture industry should be supported, but that decisions about where and how to allow farming should be guided by “the best scientific information available.” The agency said wild species need to be protected as do “sensitive marine areas.”
The guidelines cover proposals to grow algae, salmon, tuna, oysters and many other species. The Obama administration has backed growing fish in pens and cages in the past, but the new guidelines are an important step toward approving fish farming in federal waters.
Gary Locke, the commerce secretary who oversees NOAA, said developing offshore fish farms would help reduce the $9-billion trade deficit. About 84 percent of the five billion pounds of seafood consumed in the United States is imported.
He said supporting the aquaculture industry would “encourage economic growth” and “spur new innovations.”
Environmentalists have warned that allowing fish farming in open waters would add more pollution to the nation’s oceans and endanger wild populations. One fear is that farm-raised fish will escape and mix with wild populations.
Jane Lubchenco, the NOAA administrator, said fish farming can “complement wild fisheries.”
George H. Leonard, the Ocean Conservancy’s aquaculture program director, said the new policy was a “step in the right direction” but he stressed that the policy was “largely discretionary” and did not guarantee fish farms will be held to the NOAA’s guidelines. He said national standards should be drafted.
Wenonah Hauter, the head of the Food & Water Watch, called the policy wrongheaded.
“Industrial ocean fish farming is a dirty way to produce fish,” Hauter said.