Aquaculture threat looms over Alaskans

Feds present plans for fish-farm rules, state takes comments in Juneau today

Posted: Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Millions of fish raised in underwater cages in federal waters off Alaska's stormy coast?

It may not be viable here, some experts say.

But offshore aquaculture elsewhere in the world's oceans - and potentially in open water three to 200 miles out from the U.S. coastline - is getting closer to reality.

Many Alaskans fear that the practice of cultivating fish in enormous, suspended cages in federal waters could lead to the next major thrashing in the marketplace of Alaska's wild fisheries.

"We need to respond to the growth of this industry," said Sue Aspelund, a special assistant at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, on Tuesday. "We are definitely concerned about the biological implications (for wild stocks)."

Her department is hosting a series of town hall meetings, starting today in Juneau, to collect views from Alaskans about how Alaska should respond to the global development of offshore aquaculture.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, a University of Alaska economist and a New Hampshire fish farmer will give a 1:30-4:30 p.m. presentation entitled, "Aquaculture: Potential for the Future," at Centennial Hall. From 7-9:30 p.m., Alaska officials will give a presentation entitled "Alaska at the Crossroads" and hold a townhall-style meeting to discuss the growth of world aquaculture and its impacts on Alaskans.

Similar meetings will occur March 1 in Anchorage and March 17 in Kodiak.

Many Alaskans are looking at farmed salmon as a portent of what's to come with offshore cultivation of other species.

Alaska banned salmon net pen aquaculture in state waters 15 years ago due to its threat to wild stocks and fishermen's livelihoods.

Despite the ban, Alaska's salmon industry has taken a serious beating in the global marketplace due to the price squeeze from farmed salmon.

Offshore aquaculture could extend to many other Alaska species, such as halibut, true cod, rockfish, black cod and pollock, state and federal officials said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) plans to propose a National Offshore Aquaculture Act to Congress this year.

The legislation sets rules for fish farms in the federally managed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which in most areas extends three to 200 miles out from the U.S. coastline.

NOAA has been drafting the offshore regulations for more than a year and is keeping them under close wraps. But NOAA officials said they will discuss their draft bill at the town hall meetings in Juneau, Anchorage and Kodiak.

The intent is to dispel Alaskans' fears about the federal effort, said Linda Chavez, a NOAA senior advisor on the seafood industry.

"People are worried about wall-to-wall fish farms," she said.

Chavez said Alaska's primary tool if it chooses to resist offshore aquaculture is the Coastal Zone Management Act, which allows states to "chime in" on coastal and marine development.

Gov. Frank Murkowski has asked U.S. Secretary of Commerce Don Evans to grant a five-year moratorium on offshore aquaculture along Alaska's coast.

Murkowski also asked federal regulators to study the socioeconomic and environmental effects of offshore aquaculture during the five-year period.

Many Alaskans and conservation groups have stated their fears about offshore farms polluting the sea floor and squeezing them out of their traditional fishing grounds.

But Chavez and other industry watchers said offshore farms may not develop here - at least not in the near term - for a variety of reasons.

The economic prospects for the industry in Alaska have some major weak points, said Gunnar Knapp, a fisheries economist with the University of Alaska Anchorage.

The Gulf of Alaska's stormy weather and ice aren't favorable conditions for offshore farms. The lack of major roads, high labor costs and distance from markets also could deflect interest from the aquaculture industry, Knapp said.

"We'd be just as remote as we've always been," said Juneau-based seafood consultant Chris McDowell. He said another significant impediment for offshore aquaculture in Alaska is the depth of its sea floor. In Alaska's EEZ, fish cages somehow would have to be suspended several hundred fathoms deep, he said.

"Between the depth and the Gulf of Alaska's violent weather, (the industry) would have a hard time developing around here," McDowell said.

But just because the farms are unlikely to pop up here doesn't mean Alaskans shouldn't be worried about their effects on their livelihood, commercial fishing groups warned this week.

"We oppose this (NOAA) bill but we realize it has a chance to go through Congress," said Jerry McCune, a lobbyist for the United Fishermen of Alaska.

"The biggest thing to do is remain attentive and engaged with what is happening," said Joe Childers, executive director of the Western Gulf of Alaska Fishermen.

The effects are still a matter of guesswork.

"At first blush, it sounds incredible that the pollock industry could be impacted," due to its vast production scale, said Knapp, the economics professor.

But in reality, farmed, freshwater tilapia can be made into surimi (artificial crab) and other traditional pollock industry products, and has the potential to pose serious competition to Alaska's shore-based and at-sea processor operations.

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