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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Fish farming needs rules

A decision to allow commercial fish farming in federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico should only come after extensive consideration of the environmental and health impacts to the Gulf and its wild fisheries.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is meeting in Mobile this week to consider adopting rules on fish farming. It should wait, and let Congress weigh in with consistent standards to be applied to all federal waters.

Fish farming sounds intuitively benign, using floating pens to raise fish or shellfish. But beneath the surface — literally and figuratively — there are real and serious dangers.

Ocean fish farming elsewhere in the United States and around the world has produced problems few, if any, anticipated before the simple-sounding idea took off.

But experience has shown that the problems are real.

That includes pollution of surrounding seawater and ocean bottom from the accumulation of concentrated feces and uneaten fish food, and from the antibiotics and other medicines used in response to diseases and other problems caused by the concentration of large numbers of commercially grown fish in a small area.

There have also been serious problems with parasites and diseases spreading between confined commercial fish populations and wild fish that pass near the farms, or from commercial fish that escape.

That problem is magnified if the commercial fish include genetically modified species that can escape and mate with wild fish.

Congress is considering standardized fish farming rules under the National Offshore Aquaculture Act, which would provide a regulatory framework similar to regulations on wild-caught fish.

The last thing the Gulf's beleaguered commercial fishermen — or it sports fishermen — need are unanticipated problems from poorly considered fish farming off our shores.