NOAA, NGOs debate effects of ocean farms on wildlife

Litigation may be deterring investors; meanwhile, AVMA preparing for veterinarians' work in federal waters
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Federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico have been open to fish farming for two years, but no farms yet exist.

In January 2016, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service issued a rule that would let companies apply for 10-year permits to farm fish in federal waters of the Gulf, with five-year renewals thereafter. Up to 20 entities could operate beyond state waters in the U.S. "Exclusive Economic Zone," mostly between 3 and 200 miles offshore, although no company had filed a permit application as of mid-February 2018.

​This photo shows near-shore aquaculture, which is performed in state waters. Pens used miles offshore would be built to withstand open-ocean storms.

Paul W. Zajicek, executive director of the National Aquaculture Association, suspects companies interested in starting offshore farms are waiting for results of a federal lawsuit against the fisheries service. If the service's plan is upheld, he expects that gaining permits still will require years in a complex approval process involving NOAA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard, and any other federal entities with interests in commenting on aquaculture plans.

In the approval process, NOAA would require that a farm operator have a contract with a veterinarian or someone certified by the American Fisheries Society's Fish Health Section as a fish pathologist or health inspector.

Suit alleges environmental, economic harm

Permit holders would be allowed to only raise fish of the same species that live in the waters. Regulatory and court documents indicate seven species are the most likely candidates for farming: cobia, red drum, red snapper, mutton snapper, almaco jack, greater amberjack, and mahi mahi.

In February 2016, 12 organizations with economic, environmental, or food safety causes filed a federal lawsuit that alleges the farms would hurt wildlife and ecosystems and take money from fishing communities. Nine remain in the lawsuit: Gulf Fishermen's Association, Gulf Restoration Network, Destin Charter Boat Association, Alabama Charter Fishing Association, Fish for America USA, Florida Wildlife Federation, Recirculating Farms Coalition, Food & Water Watch, and Center for Food Safety. Three organizations—Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders Alliance, Charter Fisherman's Association, and Clearwater Marine Association—left the lawsuit in March 2017.

Those behind the lawsuit say NOAA's fisheries service is trying to regulate aquaculture as fishing but lacks authority to expand into aquaculture. They also say the agency is failing to follow its conservation mission and ensure the safety of endangered and threatened species and critical habitats, as well as failing to follow procedures and time frames for reviewing and finalizing a fisheries management plan.

Their complaint document, filed in the U.S. District Court in New Orleans, states that aquaculture has environmental consequences resulting from escaped fish, the spread of disease and parasites, and pollution through drugs, pesticides, fungicides, algaecides, and wastes. Aquaculture threatens marine life and ecosystems, increases the take of small fish to feed farmed fish, risks increasing energy consumption, privatizes public ocean resources, and alters markets through introduction of cheaply farmed fish, according to the organizations.

"The establishment of industrial aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico creates novel and significant short- and long-term risks to the Gulf's fisheries, ocean environments, and coastal communities," the organizations state. "Further, this action will serve as a precedent for the future siting and regulation of offshore aquaculture in all other regions of U.S. federal waters."

The organizations suing NOAA also argue that farming fish in the Gulf carries risks beyond those associated with aquaculture in other locations because of oil and oil dispersant contamination from the 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil platform. They said in court documents that wildlife already is harmed by blobs of oil and oil dispersants, zooplankton with accumulations of poisonous compounds, and underwater oil plumes.

A Federal Register notice published in August 2016 indicates the fisheries service has been analyzing potential environmental effects if aquaculture were allowed in federal waters of the Pacific, including waters around Hawaii and 11 U.S. territories.

When the fisheries service published its Gulf aquaculture plan early in 2016, agency officials announced that the aquaculture industry would "push the envelope on sustainable farming in the ocean." The service also cited improvements in salmon farming—feeds that stay aloft, vaccines that can reduce antimicrobial administration, reductions in escapes, and fallow periods between harvests—in indicating aquaculture is compatible with environmental protection.

NOAA sees need, ample safeguards

NOAA officials plan to issue permits to aquaculture companies that, together, could produce upward of 64 million pounds of seafood in federal waters of the Gulf each year. That would help reduce the gap between U.S. fish production and consumption, NOAA information states.

U.S. aquaculture—in freshwater and saltwater—produced about 630 million pounds of seafood in 2015, according to NOAA data. About 170 million pounds of that came from state waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

Commercial fishing dwarfs aquaculture, bringing in about 10 billion pounds yearly. In 2016, about 1.7 billion pounds came from the Gulf of Mexico.

NOAA fisheries officials, in a court filing from December 2017, said the plan for the Gulf of Mexico resulted from more than 10 years of collaboration with the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council to meet a growing demand for seafood without further exploiting wild fish populations, increasing a trade deficit in seafood, or harming protected resources and species.

The agency also argues it is entitled to some deference in interpreting the legal authority granted by Congress to issue this type of regulation, according to the motion.

Fisheries authorities have acknowledged that when it reaches a certain level, aquaculture could harm wild fish populations. But the agency could respond by reducing production, removing animals infected with pathogens, and re-evaluating aquaculture locations.

Aquaculture companies also would need to report within 24 hours any major escapes, discoveries of reportable pathogens, or interactions with marine mammals, protected species, or migratory birds. The agency also could deny applications for permits if a proposed aquaculture operation would hurt endangered species or a critical habitat.

The fishery service will consider site sizes, locations, environmental survey data, and the sizes of populations to be farmed and could deny a permit or particular site if it would pose risks to marine resources.

NOAA's court filings indicate the application process includes providing copies of permits from the Army Corps of Engineers and EPA, along with detailed plans for operations, certification of a contract with an animal health expert, certification that the fish are free of pathogens, documentation the systems can withstand hurricanes and storm surges, and inspection systems for interactions with marine mammals, protected species, and migratory birds.

AVMA leaders plan to host a meeting sometime in 2018 on the regulatory aspects of veterinarians working in federal waters. Dr. Patricia S. Gaunt, chair of the AVMA Aquatic Veterinary Medicine Committee and an associate professor and interim director of the fish laboratory in the Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine's Department of Pathobiology and Population Medicine, thinks AVMA leaders will advocate that veterinarians working in federal waters do so while in a veterinarian-client-patient relationship, licensed in a state, and accredited by the Department of Agriculture.

Dr. Gaunt noted in February details were forthcoming.