Sen. Ted Stevens surprised some Alaska fishermen Thursday when he said he believes the state should allow fish farms.
"I'm convinced there are places where we could have aquaculture" for fish and shellfish, he told reporters in Juneau while visiting the State Capitol on Thursday. "It's a matter of working out where it could take place."
Fish farming is currently banned in state waters but not in federal waters.
Stevens has assumed co-chairmanship of the Senate Commerce committee, which will review proposed offshore fish farm regulations and reauthorizing the nation's major fisheries legislation in 2005.
Stevens said Thursday he thinks Alaska agencies and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council should work together to determine "where aquaculture can take place without harming the existing commercial or sport fishing efforts that are going along our coast."
Stevens said he is not "totally opposed" to offshore aquaculture in federal waters three to 200 miles off Alaska's coast. He named two spots in state waters - Halibut Cove and Cordova - where he thinks aquaculture could take off.
"I think it's possible to have both (wild fisheries and fish farms) here and I hope we'll pursue both. I think the question is how this is done and where it is done," Stevens said.
The initial reaction to Stevens' comments on Thursday ranged from incredulity to firm opposition.
"Aquaculture sites have proven that they cannot contain their fish to their pens," said Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau. "He's talking about a concept that hasn't yet approached reality."
"I find it much easier to agree with Gov. Murkowski, who has asked for a five-year moratorium (on offshore fish farms)," Elton added.
Dale Kelley, executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association, said she was "a little surprised" by Stevens' comments. Her statewide group opposes finfish aquaculture.
"Obviously, we need to talk to the senator and find out what he has in mind here," Kelley said.
Rob Zuanich, a board member of the United Fishermen of Alaska, said offshore aquaculture off Alaska's stormy coast is unsuitable. Farming in the more protected state waters is illegal under state law, he added.
"I don't think it will happen here, really," Zuanich said. If it does go forward, it should go through the regional fisheries council, he said.
Stevens said he is convinced that "it's best to eat wild fish" and he doesn't want to see integration of wild harvests and aquaculture programs.
Elton said he didn't see how fish farms would work out in Alaska.
"We are pretty far removed from markets and our labor costs, necessarily, are higher. The feed costs are higher. I'm not sure if it makes economic sense," Elton said.