My Turn: Alaska is better off exploiting its wild, sustainable trademark

Posted: Tuesday, March 08, 2005

In my nearly 30-year career working with salmon and in Alaska's salmon industry, I see the issue of finfish (salmon) farming in Alaska's coastal waters as the biggest challenge facing our wild salmon resource, the wild salmon industry, and the coastal Alaska communities where these industry activities occur.

Finfish farming in Alaska is not economically sustainable. Economic factors in Alaska will prevent us from successfully competing in the global salmon marketplace, as costs of doing business in Alaska like labor, shipping, utilities, and governmental compliance are higher than they are in nations already fully engaged in finfish farming. These nations will continue to produce finfish (salmon) at significantly lower costs than we ever will.

The global salmon marketplace is changing. Alaska is uniquely positioned as the premier supplier of wild, sustainable, and healthy seafood. Consumer awareness of sustainability and health issues is increasing. Alaska's competitive edge in this changing marketplace will be compromised by joining the farmed finfish industry. We will be judged by how much it will cost us to grow a pound of fish in a pen and no longer by how well we manage our wild seafood resources. We have a unique and abundant resource with huge market advantages. No one else has this.

Are we trading our wild fish stocks for pen-reared fish? Marine Resources are already heavily utilized. The global demand for edible marine fish equaled the world's supply in 1984. The recent growth in aquaculture is driving the increase in demand for marine oils and proteins. This is largely because farmed fish, in order to survive, must have some marine oils and proteins included in their diets. It is estimated that by the year 2016, aquaculture alone could utilize 100 percent of the marine fish harvested worldwide. The growth in aquaculture puts pressure on the ocean's forage fish stocks. Fish meal and oil companies wanting to capitalize on this new economic opportunity seek new marine resources to fill growing market demands. The negative impact on marine ecosystems resulting from the removal of forage fish stocks on the lower end of the food chain is known. Continued growth in aquaculture will lead to more pressure and over-exploitation of the oceans' feedstocks. This will lead to a decline in size and eventual collapse of fish populations higher on the food chain.

Finfish farming can alter the genetic makeup of our wild stocks as escapees from ocean rearing pens will stray and eventually breed with wild salmon in our streams. This will affect the ability of wild stocks to adapt and survive in changing environments. In addition, fish reared in densely stocked pens will develop diseases. Escaped fish that are diseased will compromise the health of wild fish stocks by introducing and spreading new diseases and increasing the incidence of known diseases.

The environmental consequences of large-scale pig, chicken, and cattle farming are highly visible and well documented. Fish farming differs from land-based animal farming in that the impacts on the environment they create cannot be seen by the naked eye. They are below the surface of the sea therefore "out of sight." Negative environmental impacts from large-scale finfish farming do occur and they create highly toxic conditions in the marine ecosystem.

I support Gov. Frank Murkowski's request to place a five-year moratorium on new finfish aquaculture operations proposed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in federally controlled waters, beyond the three-mile state jurisdiction. I believe that it is essential that our state government play a major role in determining what types of aquaculture activities be allowed to occur off our coastline. I hope that during the five-year moratorium, the state undertakes a thorough economic feasibility study of the industry and that the economic and social realties of finfish farming in Alaska become known to the public.

I believe we Alaskans stand to gain much more value over the long term from our wild, natural, and healthy seafood resources than we ever will from finfish farming.

• Sandro Lane is the founder of Taku Smokeries and Taku Fisheries and CEO and founding partner of Alaska Protein Recovery, LLC. He was a board member and chair for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, and has a master's degree in salmon genetics.

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