Fish farming in federal waters would face significant new hurdles under a bill introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski late last week.
Her proposed Natural Stock Conservation Act would stall development of aquaculture in offshore waters until federal agencies receive instructions from Congress requiring "rigorous studies" for the new industry, Murkowski spokesman Eliot Bundy said Friday.
Fish farms - which can spread disease and non-native fish to surrounding waters - need the same level of scrutiny that has been given to national ocean policy reform in recent years, Murkowski said in a Friday press statement.
"We cannot afford a rush to judgment on this issue," she said. "It is far too dangerous if we make a mistake."
Her bill, introduced Thursday night, will go head to head with a couple of pro-aquaculture Congressional bills anticipated by fishermen and the aquaculture industry later this spring.
The White House, for example, is finalizing a National Offshore Aquaculture Act to authorize the National Marine Fisheries Service to allow fish farms in the three-to-200-mile exclusive economic zone just outside state waters.
National Marine Fisheries Service officials who recently promoted the White House bill in public meetings in Kodiak, Anchorage and Juneau declined to comment on Murkowski's bill Friday.
Also, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., plans to re-introduce a bill this year allowing use of thousands of retired oil platforms along the outer continental shelf, especially in the Gulf of Mexico, as fish farms or artificial reefs.
"We really think (fish farms) are going to become a developing thing in the Gulf," said Wayne Swingle, director of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.
To avoid the ire of Gulf shrimpers - economically devastated by Asian shrimp aquaculture much as Alaskan fishermen were harmed by farmed salmon - Gulf rig aquaculture would likely concentrate on finfish, Swingle said.
He said he suspects aquaculture boosters in the Gulf region will object to Murkowski's bill.
It's hard to tell at this point how other states will react to the aquaculture legislation. "We have not been in discussion with any senators outside of Alaska on this issue," Bundy said.
"As we move forward with the bill we will be talking especially to those coastal state senators whose fishing industries who have been hit by foreign farmed imports and will be particularly threatened by any hastily enacted domestic aquaculture programs," he added.
Murkowski said in her Friday press announcement she is worried about the White House aquaculture bill, which remains barred from public view during its U.S. Office of Management and Budget review.
She said the Bush administration has not worked through the bill with national legislators who represent fishing communities.
Her bill would require federal consultation with state governors on new offshore farms and authorization of offshore permits by regional fisheries management councils. However, the bill does not include the five-year-moratorium on fish farms that she proposed in a similar bill she introduced in the final weeks of the 2004 session. That bill did not get any action in the session.
The United Fishermen of Alaska, an umbrella group of 31 fishing organizations, and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, both applauded her new bill on Friday.
Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast federation, said he will encourage members of California's Congressional delegation to support the bill and sign on as co-sponsors.
"UFA feels strongly that offshore fish farms should be under the authority of the regional fishery councils," said Mark Vinsel, executive director of the Juneau-based organization.
"We are looking for a level playing field," Vinsel said. "We are showing we can compete with (farmed fish) in the U.S. and European market."
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at email@example.com.