On Jan. 11, 2016, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced the publication of a groundbreaking rule implementing the Fishery Management Plan for Aquaculture in Federal Waters of the Gulf of Mexico (Gulf Aquaculture Plan). The rule is a major step forward because it allows for large-scale fish farming offshore, the federal waters of the Gulf — beyond state waters where U.S. aquaculture has historically remained.
Selected species of fish are raised in moored, floating net cages. They vary in size according to the species that is being grown. A cage 100 feet in diameter would support roughly 60,000 full grown redfish or 20,000 cobia. One company offers custom-built cages three times bigger with a diameter as big as the length of a football field.
The Gulf of Mexico is the first U.S. waters to win government approval to grow millions of pounds of fish in cages far out in the ocean. The rules put the federal government imprint on a policy mapped out years ago by the five-state Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.
As many as 20 offshore operations are already permitted, with a total harvest of 64 million pounds annually – roughly the amount of wild fish caught now in the entire Gulf.
It’s reported that ocean aquaculture could transform the seafood trade creating jobs, and paving the way for fish-farming in other U.S. waters. On the other hand, it could result in lost jobs in the Texas fishing communities if export markets are not found because the loss of jobs and revenue due to decreased prices for the seafood.
A NOAA spokesperson said so far that her agency had received inquiries about permits, but no applications. Future fish farmers are considering the risks of hurricane, concerns about Gulf currents, coexisting with the oil and gas industry, and the burdens of dealing with bureaucracy inexperienced with sea farms.
Fishermen and environmental advocates don’t buy it. What will happen when you concentrate fish in one area? What effect will it have on the natural stocks of fish? Sea farms amount to industrial aquaculture which NOAA’S National Marine Fisheries Service has no power to regulate.
Another item of worry is how much of the food that is fed to the fish will come from menhaden and other forage fish that sustain the Gulf fishery. The practice of feeding fish to other fish is known in the trade as FIFO – Fish in – Fish Out – a phrase the industry would prefer to avoid by adding more soybeans and plant proteins to the feed. What effect will that have, if any, on the fish?
Environmentalists and fishermen argue that the degraded water quality from feed and fish wastes, which add nutrient pollution to a body of water, is already plagued by dead zones from fertilizers flowing out of the Mississippi River. The expanse of oxygen-deprived waters in the Gulf measured 6,474 square miles last summer.
Michael Rubino, who directs NOAA’s aquaculture office, discounts threats of pollution from well run operations. He argues that fishermen stand to benefit.
Douglas Boyd of Boerne, a current member of the Gulf of Mexico council, doesn’t share some of the enthusiasm. “At this point I’d have to know more about how they’re going to do it and what they are injecting into their fish via their food. If it’s done correctly, it might not be a bad thing. But it’s going to have to be policed. We can’t just turn everybody loose to do it.”