Federal panel concedes to Alaska on aquaculture

Gov. Murkowski's request for moratorium appears to have swayed group

Posted: Friday, August 13, 2004

A federal advisory panel on Thursday called for more public input and more environmental and economic analysis before aquaculture can be expanded to U.S. federal waters.

The 27-member panel made its recommendations to the U.S. secretary of commerce after a three-day meeting in Juneau that concluded Thursday afternoon.

Alaska fishermen's advocate Mark Vinsel - alarmed that fish farms in the open ocean could steal the livelihood of Alaska fishermen and ruin the marine ecosystem - arrived angry but ended up with a big smile on his face Thursday after the panel's unanimous vote on the matter.

Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski's recent request for a moratorium on off-shore aquaculture until further evaluations of its potential impacts seems to have made a big difference, Vinsel said.

Linda Behnken, a Sitka-based advocate for Alaska longline fishermen, said: "I didn't have many expectations other than they would politely listen to Alaskans. I'm pleasantly surprised."

It remains to be seen whether the marine fisheries panel's input will be included in draft legislation to Congress next year.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Tony Knowles, who is campaigning for her seat, have both joined in the chorus of Alaska leaders and fishermen asking federal officials to slow the rush toward offshore aquaculture.

Acting upon pressure from U.S. and Canadian fishermen, Lisa Murkowski also has asked the Canadian government to halt coastal black cod farm operations in British Columbia until Canadians complete their environmental assessment of the new industry. That assessment has not begun yet, she said.

The marine fisheries panel made its key concessions to Alaskans and conservation groups after its all-day aquaculture hearing on Wednesday, and after Vinsel and Native fish and wildlife official Don Bremner participated in deliberations of an aquaculture subcommittee meeting Thursday morning.

So far, the panel's recommendations to the Secretary of Commerce include:

• Devising programs that would allow traditional fishing communities rather than just corporations to benefit from offshore aquaculture operations.

• Improving the transparency of federal aquaculture planning.

• Putting possible negative consequences - such as environmental effects, user conflicts and socioeconomic harm to coastal communities - at a higher priority in aquaculture planning documents.

• Giving states and regional fisheries councils a role in deciding where and how offshore aquaculture operations will be permitted.

• Considering a point system to maximize benefits to local economies. For example, permitting would favor cooperatives versus individuals, and domestic over foreign holding of leases.

• Holding regional hearings on offshore aquaculture across the country.

Committee member Bonnie Brown said public input is important before aquaculture legislation gets written down as a draft.

"It's really a huge point," said Brown, a geneticist at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Bill Hogarth, an assistant administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said offshore aquaculture development "is a tough issue for all of us" but ultimately he recognizes "it's up to the American public."

He said he didn't know when draft legislation will be available and advised against an environmental assessment until after legislation is approved by Congress.

A number of environmental groups have called for a legislative environmental assessment, which Hogarth and some of the panel members oppose. The panel did not vote on that matter Thursday.

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