WASHINGTON - The Bush administration wants to allow ocean farming for shellfish, salmon and saltwater species in federal waters for the first time, hoping to grab a greater share of the $70 billion aquaculture market.
A plan being announced Monday by Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez would let companies operate fish farms three miles to 200 miles offshore, but without some of the rules on size, season and harvest methods that apply to other commercial fishermen.
Fish farms already operate on inland and coastal waters as far as three miles into the ocean, which fall under state jurisdiction.
An earlier administration plan won little support in Congress last year. Senate Democrats cited potential risks with pollution and genetic mixing of farmed and wild fish.
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Last month, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, proposed blocking aquaculture in federal waters until Congress can study how it might affect Alaska's wild salmon, halibut, sablefish and crab.
Environmental concerns have arisen about wastewater generated by such operations. Gutierrez, however, said the administration's proposal had safeguards and would permit states to ban fish farming up to 12 miles off their coast.
"We believe we can do it in a way that is environmentally sound, that makes sense for our economy. And given that we are importing so much farm-raised fish, we might as well do it ourselves," Gutierrez told The Associated Press.
The plan, to be presented at the International Boston Seafood Show, would help the $1 billion U.S. aquaculture industry roughly double over the next few decades, he said.
Globally, the $70 billion aquaculture business accounts for almost half the seafood consumed in the world today as wild fish stocks decline.
About 70 percent of all the seafood eaten in the United States comes from overseas, contributing "a trade deficit of about $9 billion in fish," Gutierrez said. Almost half is farm-raised.
Farming of saltwater species such as salmon and shrimp is common in countries such as Thailand, Canada, China and Scotland. Much of their catch is sold in the United States.
Until now, the U.S. industry has focused mainly on catfish, tilapia and other freshwater fish. Some ocean farms raise shellfish such as mussels, clams and oysters, as well as shrimp and salmon.
"We can do it a lot better than anyone else," Gutierrez told the AP. "We believe that the power of the marketplace will be what determines the success here."
Only three years ago the Environmental Protection Agency begin regulating the more than 200 fish farms that generate wastewater poured directly into U.S. waterways.
Fish farming companies also must consult with the Food and Drug Administration, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Agriculture Department and other federal and state environmental agencies.
But the United States lacks regulations for aquaculture in federal marine waters that extend three miles to 200 miles offshore, where U.S. jurisdiction ends.
The administration wants Congress to pass legislation that would let the Commerce Department issue 20-year permits to companies that raise fish in deep ocean waters. The permits would exempt companies from regulations that apply to other commercial fishermen and are intended to restrict size, season and harvest methods.
The administration's proposal would:
Authorize $4 million for the program, starting in October 2008.
Require companies to post bonds or other financial guarantees that they will remove the farms when operations end.
Impose fines of up to $250,000 a day per violation and criminal penalties of up to five years in prison and $500,000 in fines, or $1 million for a group.
Gutierrez said the government "can be pretty objective" about regulating the aquaculture despite seeking to promote it. "This ties in very well with reducing overfishing," he said. "This is very much the future, and we need to get to work to be able to have an adequate supply of fish."
Some marine experts, however, say fish farming adds to overfishing because most farms involve carnivorous fish that are fed more fish protein than the farms produce. They say the farms release pesticides, antibiotics and other chemicals, and cause genetic contamination of wild fish.
"The growth of aquaculture is questionable, as we are using the wild fish to grind up to feed the farmed fish," said Charles Clover, author of "The End Of The Line," a book on overfishing.
"It promotes overfishing for forage fish, and it's putting the farmed fish out with the wild fish - you don't really want the diseases to get into the wild population," he said.