A Juneau-based commercial fishermen advocacy group staunchly opposes the latest Bush administration-backed proposal to further fish farming.
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"(United Fishermen of Alaska) opposes fish farms anytime, anywhere, any place. Inshore. Offshore. Period," said Bob Thorstenson, the organization's president and a Juneau-based seiner.
"Even if it is done halfway across the country, subsidized fish farms are going to compete with our product," he said. "No ifs, ands, or buts."
The plan introduced Monday by Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez would allow companies to operate fish farms in federal waters three to 200 miles offshore.
The plan is largely similar to one that was introduced in 2005 and won little support in Congress. The latest plan would set up a framework for permits, regulation and environmental oversight with the aim of making the United States more competitive in the $70 billion industry.
"I think we need to stop perpetuating the misconceptions and myths that are circulating about aquaculture. Fishing and aquaculture are complementary technologies," said Bill Hogarth, director of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, in a teleconference Monday.
"It is not a competition between wild harvesting and aquaculture," he said. "This is a complementary process."
Alaska fishermen don't see it the same way.
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Overseas fish farming nearly crippled the salmon fishing industry in the 1990s, when it caused prices to drop. It has taken several years and thousands of dollars in marketing to bring the market back.
"It was not only Alaska's salmon that took a big hit with the over-proliferation of overseas fish farms," warned Bruce Wallace, a seiner and UFA board member who has closely followed the issue.
"Farm fish prices also dropped in half," he said.
The latest plan would allow states more control over protecting their wild stock by allowing them to opt out of permitting seafood farms within 12 miles of shore.
Many of Alaska's seafood species are highly transitory, Wallace said, meaning the proposed framework wouldn't work in Alaska.
"We don't want them anywhere off our waters. We already have enough problems with British Columbia's fish farms," said Mark Vinsel, executive director of UFA.
UFA would support an opt-out provision that extended to the 200-mile limit, he said.
Wallace said a better way to boost the country's edge in the world seafood market would be to help Alaskans sell more fish.
"We have fish here that is not getting to market," he said.
The fishermen's group is formulating an opposition strategy.
"We will voice our opposition as a group. We will work hard with (Sen.) Ted (Stevens) and (Sen.) Lisa (Murkowski) and (Rep.) Don (Young) and with the administration and with Gov. Palin," Thorstenson said. "We believe that all of Alaska's leadership will be supportive."
United Fishermen of Alaska recently announced its all-time membership high of 36 member groups, representing commercial fishing interests throughout the state.
A decade ago, the group's membership totaled 16 members, Thorstenson said.
Brittany Retherford can be reached at email@example.com.
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