Despite recent pleas for a moratorium by Alaskan leaders, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration asked Congress on Tuesday to allow fish farms in federal waters.
The farms, three to 200 miles from shore, would augment U.S. commercial fishing that cannot meet growing domestic demand for seafood, said NOAA's top official, Conrad Lautenbacher.
Some Alaska fishing groups, environmentalists and politicians said Tuesday that NOAA has glossed over the bill's huge ramifications for the fishing industry, which remains a critical cog in Alaska's coastal economy.
"It's certainly going to affect (seafood) prices," said Dale Kelley, executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association.
"Despite having been years in development, the bill released today clearly shows NOAA's failure to communicate effectively and consult adequately with communities and organizations concerned about the implications of fish farming," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who was expected to introduce the NOAA aquaculture bill by today as a courtesy to the Bush administration, is displeased with some of the bill's provisions, according to his staff.
Stevens intends to file an amendment that would allow Alaska or other states to opt out of the federal aquaculture program, according to staff working for the Senate Commerce committee, which he chairs.
Opting out doesn't fix the problem, said Jim Ayers, Juneau-based Pacific Coast coordinator for Oceana, an international environmental group.
"It's false security," Ayers said, explaining that the economic harm and escapes from fish farms reach beyond state boundaries to entire regions, particularly the Pacific Northwest.
NOAA officials said they don't intend to set up offshore farms - likely massive underwater cages with automatic feeding devices - to compete with commercial fishermen in Alaska or elsewhere.
There would be no need to raise halibut in Alaska, for example, because the state already has a viable commercial halibut fishery, said Bill Hogarth, director of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service.
But at present, 70 percent of U.S. seafood is imported, and 40 percent of those imports are farmed, Lautenbacher told reporters Tuesday in Washington, D.C.
He said the United States should produce more of its own seafood and fish farms will supply new job opportunities in impoverished coastal communities.
Offshore fish farms in U.S. federal waters could include species such as black cod, halibut, rockfish, red snapper and shellfish.
The proposed legislation lacks any environmental rules specific to the aquaculture industry, leaving those matters for agency rule making, and would allow foreign ownership of U.S. offshore fish farms.
The legislation also puts regional fishery councils, such as Alaska's North Pacific Fishery Management Council, in a consultative role rather than a permitting role.
Ten-year permits for offshore fish farms would be issued by the U.S. Department of Commerce, which would also levy fees and evaluate the suitability of farm sites.
Murkowski introduced a bill this spring that would prohibit development of the new farms pending further study of its environmental and socioeconomic consequences. Her father, Gov. Frank Murkowski, has taken a similar stance.
The governor wants a five-year moratorium on offshore finfish farms, said his spokeswoman, Becky Hultberg.
Salmon farms introduced worldwide hurt Alaskan salmon fisheries and fish-farming ventures, due to their dramatic downward pressure on salmon prices.
Since then, Alaskan seafood harvesters have established niche markets capitalizing on "wild-caught" salmon and ecologically sustainable harvesting.
International aquaculture companies are now on a path of rapid consolidation and refinancing but have been targeted by environmentalists for escapes of non-native fish and parasites discovered on fish around salmon farms.
"We already have enough problems with escaped farmed salmon from Canada," said Mark Vinsel, executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska. "Fishermen don't want to see this happen anywhere near the Alaska coast."
Sen. Murkowski demanded a legislative environmental analysis of the aquaculture bill on Tuesday.
In Alaska, finfish farming in state waters is banned but mariculture (shellfish farming) is allowed under state law.
So far, NOAA has provided funding for a handful of shellfish and finfish offshore pilot farms in New Hampshire, Hawaii and Puerto Rico through its Sea Grant program.
One pilot mariculture project in the Gulf of Maine has become profitable, farming rope-cultured mussels, but it is too early to evaluate the economics of the finfish projects, said Michael Rubino, manager of NOAA's aquaculture program.
NOAA predicts that global seafood demand will more than triple by 2025.
Two international aquaculture companies contacted Tuesday did not comment on the record about NOAA's bill, though one company official in Canada said operating offshore probably would add costs to business operations.
Due to concentrated development along the U.S. coastline, near-shore fish farming is not really a viable option, according to Richard Langan, an aquaculture research coordinator based at the University of New Hampshire.
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