A new national task force will spend the next 18 months devising ideas to reduce harm from fish farms proposed off the U.S. coast.
The nine-member task force, created by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, includes former Anchorage Republican state Sen. Arliss Sturgulewski.
Because the state's large commercial fishing industry could be harmed by ocean farming, "this is an area of big interest to many, many people in Alaska," Sturgulewski said Tuesday.
After its 18-month review, the Marine Aquaculture Task Force will issue a report suggesting national policy guidelines for fish farms proposed in federal waters three to 200 miles from the coast.
Its meetings are planned in coastal states, including Alaska.
Sturgulewski said the task force tentatively plans its second meeting, in Anchorage, in September. The task force will host its first meeting July 20-21 in Woods Hole, Mass.
"This task force comes at the perfect time," said retired Rear Adm. Richard F. Pittenger, chairman of the task force.
"Two major ocean commissions have recommended ecologically sustainable marine aquaculture, and the Bush administration and Congress are in the early stages of contemplating how this should be done," he said.
Legislation proposed by the Bush administration in early June would allow the U.S. Department of Commerce to regulate the farms in federal waters, but does not set any specific environmental guidelines.
Alaska fishermen immediately reacted in dismay, saying that the bill does not provide adequate safeguards for wild fish stocks or Alaska's fishing-dependent communities.
The country needs strong policies - before the farms are allowed - in order to avoid harm to wild stocks from reported problems including fish farm pollution or competition from non-native escaped fish, Sturgulewski said.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, introduced the federal aquaculture bill as a courtesy to the Bush administration. He then proposed an amendment that would allow states to block farms off their coastlines.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has filed another Senate bill that would block all commercial farm ventures in federal waters until more intensive environmental and socioeconomic studies are completed.
It's looking less likely that the federal aquaculture bill will get a vote by Congress this year, Sturgulewski said.
"The real question is how do we do this without making ourselves worse off?" said Chris Mann, the task force's executive director.
Mann said the task force will analyze ocean aquaculture from a sustainability standpoint. He said it is likely that sustainable harvest for some species will involve fish farming. But other species may be more sustainably harvested by wild fisheries, he said.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at email@example.com.