Within the next five to seven months, the Obama administration is expected to come up with new rules for aquaculture operations in federal waters.
Today, fish farms are confined to operating within three miles off United States' shorelines. In 2005 the Bush administration proposed extending aquaculture to federal waters beyond that three-mile radius, but Congress voted against it due to fears of waste pollution, antibiotics and pesticides commonly used in fish farming.
These environmental concerns still exist, but Representative Lois Capps, a Democrat of Santa Barbara, has introduced legislation that would establish new environmental regulations allowing safe aquaculture in federal waters. Capps and supporters believe the economic opportunities for the U.S., a country that imports over 80 percent of its seafood and over half of that from fish farms, are too great to pass up. With a new set of enforceable regulations, aquaculture can be developed responsibly and sustainably on larger scales off U.S. shores. Under Capps' plan, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would establish a new office that would deal only with aquaculture -- determining which fish are appropriate to farm in which waters, giving ten-year permits and regulating them through environmental impact studies.
As good as this sounds, aquaculture still remains highly controversial. Environmental groups point to public health risks posed by water pollution, as well as to diseases introduced to wild populations already threatened by overfishing.
Ted Dunn, a long-time commercial fisherman interviewed in November by the San Diego News Network said of aquaculture, "I don't know of anything else. Instead of environmental groups fighting it head on, I think people should come together and find out how to do it." Read the entire San Diego News Network article on aquaculture here.
Jonathan Safran Foer's newest book, Eating Animals, includes a chapter on fish farming he calls "Our Underwater Sadism." Check out Foer's book here.
Wherever you fall on the aquaculture spectrum, the debate in the next several months promises to be a heated one. We can only hope any new regulations are made with science, environmental stewardship and public health as priorities over immediate economic benefit, and not the other way around.