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Bill banning use of offshore platforms for fish farms could affect Gulf aquaculture

By Ben Raines |

chevronrig.jpg(AP file)The Chevron Genesis Oil Rig Platform in the Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans, La. is seen on Aug. 19, 2008. A bill introduced in Congress would ban the use of oil and natural gas platforms like this one for aquaculture, potentially affecting the Gulf's attractiveness for fish farming.

Proposed federal legislation could make the Gulf of Mexico a less likely site for the nation's first commercial offshore fish farms.

Under the National Sustainable Offshore Aquaculture Act of 2009, proposed by Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., it would be illegal to use oil or natural gas platforms for fish farming operations.

Many consider the presence of 4,000 such platforms the Gulf's primary advantage as an aquaculture destination. Proponents have touted them as perfect workstations, providing a place to secure fish cages, quarter crewmembers, and store fish food and medications.

Farming fish such as red snapper would take pressure off dwindling natural stocks and create jobs, say those who favor the practice. Opponents point to a variety of issues, including water pollution, use of antibiotics and other chemicals, and potential damage to native populations if farm escapees contaminate the wild gene pool.

The Gulf is the only section of the nation's coastline that has an offshore aquaculture permitting plan awaiting final federal approval.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council approved the plan in January after years of debate. Though many expected the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to reject the plan -- which is applicable only in the gulf -- the agency allowed it to become law in September. All that remains is the final rulemaking procedure, which involves public comment.

So far, no one is lining up to get a permit. In part, that may be due to a legal conundrum that could keep a fish farm proposal in court for years.

At issue is whether raising fish in pens and harvesting them from cages constitutes fishing.

NOAA, through a legal memo that defines aquaculture as fishing, claims to have jurisdiction under current federal law, according to Stephanie Showalter, director of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Legal Center, which studies coastal and ocean legal issues. But that interpretation has not been challenged, she said.

"I think there are strong legal arguments that could be made that aquaculture is not fishing," she said, "and so it would not be covered under the Magnuson Act."

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act gives NOAA the authority to set catch limits and fishing seasons for the nation's fisheries.

NOAA has twice since 2005 tried to get legislation allowing it to regulate aquaculture. Both attempts failed. NOAA officials said Monday that the agency is working on a new plan but couldn't discuss it at this time, and has not yet reviewed the proposed aquaculture bill.

Capps' new bill would have NOAA regulate aquaculture, but it would also include new hurdles for anyone seeking to farm fish. For instance, no fish farms could be permitted until environmental impact studies had been conducted for all of the nation's coastal waters. It has been referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources. Her office did not return calls seeking comment.

"The new bill has many more environmental safeguards than the Gulf Council's plan, but it is still not enough," said Marianne Cufone, with Food and Water Watch, an environmental group opposed to ocean aquaculture.

Cufone's group favors "recirculating" aquaculture projects -- land-based systems that clean and reuse water thus preventing undesirable effects in the ocean.

Cufone said regulators should be aware that foreign companies are particularly interested in growing fish in American waters.

She said the companies would grow fish here, sell them all over the world and "leave us with the pollution and problems."

Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Mobile, said the bill could hurt Gulf coast aquaculture by banning the use of offshore platforms, even those that are no longer in service. In an e-mailed statement, Bonner said he would "make Rep. Capps aware of the potentially negative impact her bill could have on our economy."

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