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Privatizing the Ocean By Phil Lansing

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By Phil Lansing

The Department of Commerce and a little known sub-agency called the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) are pursuing a radical plan to develop fish feedlots 2 to 200 miles off our ocean coasts. This alarming plan would effectively privatize parts of the ocean for large corporations.

The NMFS is promoting privatized ocean sites, feedlots for new finfish species, and a streamlined application and permitting process. Remarkably, the agency admits that getting outside of state and local authorities and their regulations that protect the environment is a major reason for moving offshore.

Similar to factory-style poultry and livestock operations, there are mounting concerns that fish feedlots are causing damage to the environment. These feedlots produce fish in crowded cages, requiring antibiotics and pesticides to treat diseases and parasites. Pollution from the feedlots can suffocate marine life, and escapes threaten native fish.
The proposal to extend fish feedlots into the ocean is part of a larger NMFS plan to respond to the Seafood Trade Deficit, also called the Seafood Gap. Americans love seafood. We import far more than we export. Most of what we import are expensive fish, while we export the cheap stuff. Addressing this gap is the agency?s economic rationale for a vast new off shore aquaculture program that could forever change our coastal ecosystems. The NMFS has embarked on a 25-year plan to close the Seafood Gap though aggressive promotion of fish feedlots in U.S. waters.

Following its marching orders from the Department of Commerce, the NMFS plan focuses on expanding domestic marine aquaculture. That means promoting fish feedlots through grants, corporate recruitment and reduced regulation. NMFS dismisses the idea that fish feedlots are environmentally damaging ? despite rapidly emerging evidence to the contrary – by claiming that any problems that occur can be fixed with new technology.

The offshore proposal comes after a growing number of coastal communities have had a bellyful of fish feedlots and will tolerate no more. State and local governments are shutting down NMFS planned expansions through regulation and outright bans. By building the industry outside of state and local jurisdiction in the U.S. Economic Exclusion Zone, 2 to 200 miles off shore, the NMFS will be the regulatory agency and have a much freer hand.

Here are the some of NMFS current objectives for offshore development, gleaned from their own documents:
Promote commercial feedlot exploitation of at least seven new finfish species. This is despite powerful scientific documentation of the damage done by farming salmon.
Create private ownership rights to ocean feedlot sites. NMFS finds corporations don?t want to risk investing offshore without ownership rights, which presumably will increase their chances of a federal buyout if things go sour.

Prepare for commercial introduction of genetically engineered fish upon their approval by the Food and Drug Administration. Preparations are to include plans for recapture of escaped genetically engineered fish and record keeping of genetic modifications to help monitor those they can?t catch.
Streamline the application and approval process for off shore site development. NMFS will be both promoting the industry and approving the applications.

Encourage aquaculture industry representatives to seek membership on all NMFS advisory panels, including Fishery Management Councils and Marine Protected Area advisory groups. Won?t that be cozy? NMFS just got done drafting a Code of Conduct for Responsible Aquaculture Development in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone with input from around 40 aquaculture representatives and none from commercial fishing organizations.

The NMFS is accepting comments on its proposal until October 31. There is still time for the agency to consider a different type of economic development plan. Instead of promoting an environmentally destructive industry, the agency should spend resources to build the market for wholesome, sustainable U.S. wild shrimp and salmon. These type of sustainable fishing operations help promote and enhance local economies and ecosystems.

The NMFS and Commerce have set out to make an important, probably irrevocable change in U.S. marine policies based on specious economic rationale, and little public input. The NMFS, a scientific and regulatory agency, has transformed itself into a special interest advocate. The agency should either protect the ocean or boost industry ? attempting to do both simultaneously is a conflict that leads to foolish rationale associated with the Seafood Gap and a serious violation of the public trust.

Phil Lansing is a resource economist and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy Oct 16 2002 News on