Offshore fish farming legislation

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Offshore fish farming is the use of nets or cages miles offshore to raise fish for food. Complications with the practice include the escape of farmed fish into wild populations; use of wild fish for farmed fish feed; health issues due to farm locale, chemicals, or pollutanats in feed; economic impacts on fishing communities due to market competition; and pollution due to high concentration of fish waste.

The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a report in 2006 calling for the increased permittance of fish farming while the Bush administration has expressed concern over lagging U.S. fish production. In April 2007 Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) introduced the National Offshore Aquaculture Act of 2007 (H.R.2010), which would allow the Secretary of Commerce to increase the permittance of offshore fish farming. Several environmental, fishing, and consumer groups have expressed their opposition to the legislation.



Offshore fish farming is the use of marine aquaculture – the cultivation of plants and/or animals in water – within the Exclusive Economic Zone of a country, which is 3 to 200 nautical miles from shore.[1] In contrast to the use of a tank or pond, offshore fish farming allows open ocean water to flow freely through the nets or cages. These can be deployed off of de-commissioned oil platforms or near active ones.[2]

Offshore and onshore fish farming have become very controversial public issues that have split fishing industry groups, fishermen, government officials, environmentalists, and scientists. The subject is very complex, economically, scientifically and environmentally with extensive experience of less than a decade. Objections tend to be based on hypothetical assumptions as to what theoretically might be the adverse consequences. Support tends to be based on assumptions about the benefits, and the "fact" that the theoretical adverse consequences have not yet happened. There is relatively little offshore fish farming compared with land based fish farming in ponds or other enclosures designed for the purpose. And there is much more fish farming on the oceans and fjords as opposed to in the open ocean 1 or more miles offshore. The United States has sponsored and conducted most of the research on fish farming, on shore and off. However, the two largest utilizers of the technique have been Chile and Norway.

The original version of this article has been written by one of the groups much opposed to fish farming. Unfortunately, there is a very small scientific literature base, and speculation has been extensive by advocates and opponents. Even the reasons for or against fish farming tend to be ignored by the other side. Others are adding contrary view points to the original article.


Fish farming has become a much more important issue as the result of the confluence of several events. First, has been the public health finding that fish generally are a much more healthy source of human nutritional protein compared with more traditional meats which contain relatively large amounts of cholesterol. In the 1940s very few Americans ate much fish. The American Roman Catholic Church even proscribed universal pennance for Catholics by eating "Fish on Fridays". Fish was so unpopular that eating it was a sacrifice. Fish, then even expensive fish of today, was very inexpensive -- the cost of flounder fillets for example was less than half the cost by weight of ground beef. The American fishing industry was small, relatively inefficient, and not very lucrative. With the dietary advice of health experts pushing fish, demand increased markedly for fish, but there was no increase of capacity to fish, prices were driven up. At the same time, other nations' fisherman adopted more modern and efficient fishing techniques including huge fishing factory ships. These rapidly fished out large areas of local waters and under the law of the seas, Japanese, Chilean and fisherman of other countries started to come into North American Waters competing heavily with American Fishermen. This drove the price of fish still higher. By the 1980s only middle and upper class Americans could afford fish and fishmeat was typically 300% of the price of ground beef rather then the less than 50% of the 1940s. The unbridaled international fishing competition soon began to deplete fish stocks, increasing the prices further but decreasing the income to American fishermen who had to work harder to obtain the fish that they could. American fishermen began to use the very techniques that others were using that fished out many of the world's best fishing grounds. Public health authorities became concerned that as a nation, fish in the American diet was important but was unaffordable for many Americans and there were not a large enough supply anyway. More fishermen could not necessarily catch more fish from the rapidly depleting fishing grounds.

History had amply demonstrated that the the hunter gatherer societies had given way to farming and animal husbandry where humans could control supply better and provide a more reliable and much more cost effective food supply. Yet for strong cultural reasons favoring traditional fishing at sea, and technological limitations on the experience and known economics, benefits and risks, inhibited fishing following the path of farming and animal husbandry. With relatively recent breakthroughs in techniques and equipment, more and more traditional fishing communities turned to fish farming as the way to preserve an industry and way of life as well as insure a healthy, affordable food supply. Other fishing communities saw fish farming as the "nail in the coffin" -- a mode that would change their work and lifestyles, not necessarily in the positive direction. So while fishing nations like Chile and Norway made huge investments in fish farming, other fishing nations like England and the United States fishing interests tended to oppose fish farming. In one anomality techniques researched and recommended by the Federal government (NOAA) and used in parts of the continental US and foreign nations, were made illegal in Alaska.

One of the most dramatic evidences of the changing world perspective on fish farming occurred in the early 21st centry. Virtually every community in the United States has shopping access to the world's largest retailer, Walmart. Every single Walmart store and warehouse began to get daily fresh supplies of salmon. Millions of Americans were buying and eating that salmon. All of it comes from fish farms in Chile. Gourmet supermarkets like Giant and Balducii's sell the Norwegian Salmon farmed in hugh fish farms in the fiords of Norway. Ironically, the Norwegian salmon commands a price that is far higher than the Alaskan "wild" salmon, and in the American "salmon wars" many fine restaurants boast that they only serve Norwegian farmed salmon, and other bost that they serve only wild salmon. Alaskan salmon fishermen were caught between the harsh pincers of the market place: Chilean farmed salmon was cheaper than the Alaskan, and in the quality war Norwegian farmed salmon seemed to be commanding a higher price.

With economic and cultural interests at stake in America, and too little science and experience, the issues have all become political footballs where there is much more heat than light. For each of the "complications" of fish farming discussed in the remainder of this article there are a host of dissenting viewpoints, almost all with no more scientific evidence than the critics and predictors of major problems have for their dire warnings. Also, there are now arguments of dire consequences if there is NOT a major expansion of fish farming, not the least of which is the collapse of most of the world's fishing stocks due to the predatory nature of international competitive fishing and techniques which harm species that are not even eaten. Many argue that regardless of the arguments of today, collapse is imminent and that will drive the reality, and not policy debates.

Some Objections to offshore fish farming

The fish cultivated by offshore fish farms are usually those with carnivorous diets and high market demand (such as halibut, cod, and snapper). Due to complications that arise from high concentrations of these fish in fish farms, pesticides and other chemical and/or biological agents are added to the water or feed in order to curb the spread of disease. The fish being raised are selected and bred for preferable genetic traits (such as size, growth rate, etc...). Due to their carnivorous diets and semi-controlled environments, the fish must be fed other smaller fish. Because of their locations, offshore fish farms are subject to the elements and damage to the enclosures are not uncommon.[3]

Complications in offshore fish farming


Fish farming drives down the price of wild fish while simultaneously depleting wild fish populations. Approximately 0.5 million metric tons of the United States' 6 million metric ton seafood consumption (including freshwater) comes from domestic fish farms, which brings in approximately $1 billion in market value. The introduction of farmed seafood drives the price of fish – including wild fish – down, as was seen when farmed salmon was introduced to the U.S. market in the 1990s. Also, because several pounds of wild fish are used as feed per pound of farmed fish, wild fish populations are depleted to produce the species of farmed fish desired by consumers. Fish farming thus depletes wild fish populations faster than it produces supply. Both of these factors are detrimental to fishing communities.[4]


Wild fish populations are threatened in several ways by offshore fish farming. The genetically selected and modified fish used in the farms frequently escape the enclosures due to predatory or elemental damage. They can then overtake natural fish populations by outbreeding them or outcompeting them for their food sources. Competition for food sources creates a particular problem for already stressed fish populations. Because wild fish are used to feed the farmed fish the practice further depletes the wild populations.[5]

The introduction of chemical and/or biological agents to counteract the spread of disease due to the concentration of the fish (as mentioned above), can also prove problematic. Because of the free flow of water, the agents added can pollute the surrounding water and habitats. Further, the fecal matter produced by the concentrations of fish can cause changes to the local ecosystem. University of Hawaii researchers compared the environmental changes to those that occur when human sewage is dumped in to the ocean.[6]


Due to their locations on or near active or de-commissioned oil platforms, fish from offshore farms may have higher levels mercury. In addition, the small wild fish used as feed are known to contain certain carcinogens and pollutants, which contaminate the farmed fish.[7]

Current legislation

National Offshore Aquaculture Act of 2007 - H.R. 2010

The National Offshore Aquaculture Act of 2007, (H.R.2010) which is virtually identical to the National Offshore Aquaculture Act of 2005,[8] was introduced by Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) on April 24, 2007. The bill was referred to the House Committees on Foreign Affairs, Ways and Means and Natural Resources, which Rahall chairs.[9] Presumably, the organizations supporting and opposed to the similar bill in 2005 maintain their positions and arguments with respect to this bill.

Organizations opposed to H.R. 2010

  • Institute for Fisheries Resources
  • Ocean Conservancy
  • Environmental Defense
  • Alaska Independent Fishermen’s Marketing Association
  • Alaska Marine Conservation Council
  • Alaska Trollers Association
  • Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association
  • Center For Food Safety
  • Clean Catch
  • Columbia River Crab Fishermen’s Association
  • Environment Matters
  • Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association
  • Food & Water Watch
  • Go Wild Campaign
  • Gulf Restoration Network
  • Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association
  • Mangrove Action Project
  • Monterey Bay Aquarium
  • National Coalition for Marine Conservation
  • National Farmers Union
  • Northcoast Environmental Center
  • Oceana
  • Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations
  • Pacific Marine Conservation Council
  • Puget Sound Harvester’s Association
  • Sierra Club
  • Small Boat Commercial Salmon Fishermen’s Association
  • Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association
  • Southern Shrimp Alliance United Fishermen of Alaska

Arguments made against the act

The arguments made against this act include concerns mentioned above regarding the environment, consumer health, and the economy.

Food & Water Watch, an environmental and consumer organization opposes this act because of the following:

  • Allows the Secretary of Commerce to fast-track permits for fish farms without adequate concern for the environmental issues.
  • Fails to require monitoring of fish farms to assess impacts on the surrounding ecosystems and consumer health.
  • Fails to require adequate mapping and zoning procedures, allowing for permits to be granted on or near active oil platforms.
  • Fails to prohibit the raising of genetically modified and non-native fish species, and it provides for little or no oversight from the public, states or fishery management councils, essentially providing the Secretary of Commerce an open mandate.
  • Does not require that permit-holders cover the costs of possible damages and clean-up efforts.[10]

The act provides government support of aquaculture, acting on the recommendation of NOAA. Food & Water Watch has argued that the recommendations from NOAA were aimed at solving the seafood trade deficit and overall domestic seafood market troubles, but did not adequately consider the possible environmental, consumer health, or socio-economic impacts.[11]

Action opportunities

Past legislation

National Offshore Aquaculture Act of 2005

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) introduced the National Offshore Aquaculture Act (S.1195) on June 8, 2005. It was referred to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which Stevens chaired, where it received two hearings in 2006, but no action. Action is expected to take place during the 110th Congress.[12] The act allows the Secretary of Commerce to regulate and grant permits for the establishment and operation of offshore aquaculture facilities within the Exclusive Economic Zone. It was cosponsored by Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).[13]

The act was initiated after concerns from the Administration that the U.S. was falling behind in global seafood cultivation and a near $8 billion seafood trade deficit. In a 10-year plan, NOAA advised the permittance of offshore aquaculture to address this trade concern. The plan stated that the U.S. could increase its marine fish production 590 fold (from less that 1,000 metric tons to 590,000) by 2025 through using aquaculture. The plan would increase production and private investment while maintaining environmental and wildlife standards in accordance with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization's Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries.[14]

Articles and resources

See also


  1. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea: Part V - Exclusive Economic Zone, United Nations.
  2. Analysis of Fish Farming Bill (S1195), Food & Water Watch.
  3. "Hungry Halibut," Food & Water Watch.
  4. Quinton Robinson, "Letter: NOAA 10-Year Plan to Farm Ocean, Comments," Food & Water Watch, November 30, 2006.
  5. "Hungry Halibut," Food & Water Watch.
  6. Report: Seas of Doubt, Food & Water Watch, June 2006.
  7. "Hungry Halibut," Food & Water Watch.
  8. Take Action: Tell Congress No Industrial Fish Farms, Food & Water Watch.
  9. OpenCongress: H.R.2010, OpenCongress.
  10. Analysis of Fish Farming Bill (S1195), Food & Water Watch.
  11. Letter to Senators re: S1195, Food & Water Watch, April 5, 2006.
  12. NOAA Aquaculture Program, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
  13. THOMAS: S.1195, Library of Congress.
  14. NOAA Aquaculture Program, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

External resources

External articles