Offshore fish farming — gold mine or black hole?
BY SUSAN WEST | OBS Sentinal Link
Off shore aquaculture operations use large submerged
cages to grow fish. In this photo, an AquaPod cage at
Snapperfarm in Puerto Rico sits on the sea surface
for cleaning and inspection. (NOAA)
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) officials say the time is ripe for the United States to become a leader in global aquaculture production.
William Hogarth, director of NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service, told the audience at an aquaculture summit held this summer in Washington, DC that although "a good niche fishery" for wild fish will always exist, "the age of aquaculture is upon us."
At NOAA's request, US Representative Nick Rahall (D-West Virginia) and Senators Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) have introduced the National Offshore Aquaculture Act of 2007 (HR 2010 and S 1609).
The bill gives NOAA authority to permit and regulate aquaculture operations in federal waters, three to 200 miles off the US coast.
Offshore farms use large submerged cages, 80 feet or greater in diameter, anchored to the sea floor to grow fish.
NOAA officials say offshore fish farming will help meet the growing demand for seafood, reduce the nation's dependence on imported seafood, and create jobs in coastal communities.
Annual seafood consumption in the US rose to 16.5 pounds per person in 2006. Shrimp continues to be the seafood of choice for Americans; last year per capita consumption reached 4.4 pounds.
Imports now account for 83 percent of the seafood consumed in the US, and the seafood trade deficit stands at $8 billion.
Shrimp imports weighed in at 1.3 billion pounds, valued at more than $4 billion, in 2006. Salmon and tuna were the most popular imported finfish.
Weaning American consumers from shrimp, salmon, and tuna imports would go a long way in slashing the trade deficit.
But shrimp need the earthy material that exists on the sea bottom or in shallow ponds, and wouldn't thrive in suspended cages.
Salmon might prosper in offshore cages, but less-costly salmon farms on inshore waters already struggle in the competition with cheaper imports.
And, tuna aquaculture hasn't yet evolved to produce new fish; tuna ranches in the Mediterranean and Mexico hold and fatten wild-caught fish to market size.
Whether offshore farms can produce large quantities of inexpensive seafood and replace imports in the marketplace remains unclear.
There are just four deepwater farms in the US, raising higher-valued marine species like cobia, mutton snapper, moi, and halibut. Limited production hasn't given a true feel for the economics of deepwater aquaculture.
Freshwater species grown in concrete ponds or tank systems are the mainstays of the US aquaculture industry, and catfish and tilapia farmers here aren't immune to the sting of lower-priced imports from places like China and Indonesia.
Farmed saltwater species in the US include clams, oysters, and salmon grown on inshore tracts leased from coastal states.
In 2006, North Carolina's $29 million aquaculture industry consisted of 1671 fish farms and 196 lease-holders.
Freshwater farmers in the state raise trout, catfish, hybrid striped bass, and tilapia. Saltwater farmers grow clams and oysters, and shed soft shell crabs.
One commercial facility grows southern flounder, a species that hugs the bottom substrate and is unlikely to thrive in suspended offshore cages.
Wade Watanabe said he and other scientists at University of North Carolina at Wilmington are growing black sea bass in tank systems, but not in offshore cages.
No offshore aquaculture research is going on in the state, according to Marc Turano with the NC Sea Grant Program.
Jim Swartzenberg, president of the NC Aquaculture Association, said he hasn't heard of plans for aquaculture offshore of North Carolina.
The distance to water deep enough to offer some protection to cages in storms and hurricanes precludes economic feasibility explained Matt Parker, aquaculture consultant with NC Department of Agriculture.
Still, NOAA officials say offshore aquaculture will create new jobs and help coastal fishing communities.
"We can help American fishermen expand and diversify by adding aquaculture to their business plan," said Hogarth at the aquaculture summit.
But, comments by other speakers at the summit quickly deflated any vision of commercial fishermen guiding the nation into the new age of aquaculture.
Jeff Davis, shareholder in companies with a fleet of pollock harvesting and processing vessels and a catfish processing facility, said offshore operations will have to be large volume operations to successfully fill the demand for seafood.
"The amount of capital it will take to start up a commercial operation will be significant, and has to come from outside investors as few current US seafood companies have the available capital to take on such an undertaking," Davis said. He suggested programs including crop insurance, tax incentives, or low interest loans as ways to attract investors.
John Ericsson of Biomarine Technologies said the cost of an offshore platform, inshore hatcheries, vessels, and other support runs from $10 to $20 million.
Biomarine Technologies holds the only permit authorizing the conversion of an oil and gas production platform in the Gulf of Mexico to aquaculture.
Speakers at the summit stressed the importance of economic efficiency, with companies controlling everything from feed production to farming to processing to distribution.
"Don Tyson did it right when he looked at the chicken industry 50 to 60 years ago and he saw tremendous fragmentation... all kinds of chicken farmers all over the place...and decided that the way to do this right was to bring it together and to integrate it..," said Michael Richard of Glitnir Bank, an Icelandic bank specializing in investments in the global food system.
Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said offshore operations will "help preserve the historic ties that fishing communities have to the oceans and create a new and vibrant means for job creation."
And, commercial fishermen have worked at a deepwater aquaculture site developed by the University of New Hampshire, feeding fish, setting moorings, moving cages, and moving fish.
But Rod Moore, executive director of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association, cautioned that offshore aquaculture jobs would likely come "at the cost of existing jobs in harvesting and processing."
Sue Aspelund, special assistant with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, warned that the farmed salmon industry "devastated dozens and dozens of communities and thousands of families" in that state.
"I personally am one of them. I was a commercial fisherman, a salmon fisherman, for 23 years and had to leave the community...because I couldn't support my family...," she said.
"People had to leave coastal Alaska. The social problems that were associated with that dislocation have been profound in Alaska," she said.
Alaska has tried to counterbalance that impact with an aggressive promotion of their wild-caught species and laws prohibiting finfish farming in their state waters. Senator Ted Stevens wants a ban on fish farms in the federal waters off Alaska.
Congressional representatives from North Carolina expressed concerns with the National Offshore Aquaculture Act in comments to the Sentinel.
"I have serious concerns with this legislation because greatly expanding ocean-based aquaculture could dramatically impact North Carolina's commercial fishermen," said Senator Richard Burr (R-NC).
Representative Walter B. Jones (R-NC) also wants answers to the economic and environmental concerns associated with offshore aquaculture said Kathleen Joyce, Jones' press secretary.