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US: Farming Life May Head Offshore

by By Cain BurdeauAssociated Press
April 27th, 2005

Thousands of oil and natural gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico could be converted into deep-sea fish farms raising red snapper, mahi-mahi, yellowfin tuna and flounder under a plan backed by the Bush administration.

For years, marine biologists and oil companies have experimented using the giant platforms as bases for mariculture, but commercial use of the platforms as fish farms never got off the ground because of the federal government's reluctance to open up the oceans to farming.

Yet in December, President Bush proposed making it easier to launch fish farms off the nation's coasts. The White House said that could be accomplished by resolving a "confounding array of regulatory and legal obstacles."

Fish farming in the rough-and-tumble ocean, done by enclosing thousands of fish in submerged pens serviced by scuba divers, is limited commercially to waters within state jurisdiction, where permits have tended to be easier to get. Moi is grown in Hawaii, and cobia is farmed near Puerto Rico. Salmon farming is common, but it takes place mostly in the calm waters of fiords and bays.

But fish farmers say the future is rosy and fast approaching.

"In Asia, they're starting to creep off into the open waters; there's a lot of talk of doing it in Ireland. In the Mediterranean, they are now looking at moving out into open waters and experimenting with new cages," said Richard Langan, who heads the University of New Hampshire's Open Ocean Aquaculture program. He is experimenting with a variety of species: cod, Atlantic halibut, haddock, summer flounder and mussels.

With seafood now accounting for about $7 billion of the nation's trade deficit, advocates of deep-sea farming say mariculture would bolster American seafood production and provide much-needed employment in coastal communities harmed by the eclipse of traditional fishing.

"It's already being done in a big way in Korea, Taiwan and China," said Michael Rubino, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's aquaculture coordinator. "In the U.S., we'd like to start small, prove the concept and learn by doing."

The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy recommended in its report last year to move forward with offshore aquaculture but to hold it to high environmental standards. In a response to the commission's report, Bush in his "Ocean Action Plan" listed offshore farming legislation as a priority this year.

The new frontier is federal waters, Rubino said.

"There's no good framework in terms of where this should be done, how it should be done, how the rules of the game should be applied," he said.

The gulf could be just the place where such a framework is developed.

Oil and gas platforms can function as barn-like bases: They're big enough to store feed, their deck winches and cranes can lift and drop pens in and out of the water, and, if needed, fish farmers can spend the night onboard.

And unlike many in Florida and California, the people along the coasts of Louisiana and Texas by and large welcome the offshore industry and its array of spindly legged and blinking rigs and platforms.

"The gulf has tremendous potential," said Granvil Treece, an aquaculture specialist at Texas Sea Grant, a program that supports university research and is part of Texas A&M University. "There's been a logjam so far, and that's been because of permitting mostly."

There are about 3,500 idle platforms in the gulf and each one of them could be a candidate for becoming a fish farm.

"The oil companies are looking for a way of leaving platforms in place and delaying the disassembly and expensive process of dismantling and removing a platform," said George Chamberlain, president of the St. Louis-based Global Aquaculture Alliance.

It costs about $2 million to bring a platform ashore, Treece said, but another option, the rigs-to-reefs program in which a platform is converted into an artificial reef, costs about $800,000. Chamberlain said the cost of production in fish farming continued to decline.

Farming from the gulf's platforms has been only experimental. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, for example, Occidental Petroleum Corp. teamed up with Texas Sea Grant scientists to grow redfish.

Severe storms damaged some pens, and fish got out. And Treece said studies showed that the ocean-raised redfish worked out to cost $22 a pound, whereas the market price for redfish was $3.50 a pound. Also, just to run the platform's navigational lights and fight off corrosion cost about $50,000 a year, he said.

Russell Miget, a Texas Sea Grant fisheries specialist who worked on the project, remembered standing on a platform with an Occidental representative contemplating the future of fish farming. Responding to a question, Miget estimated that in ideal conditions, the platform could gross $6 million a year.

Critics worry about turning the nation's oceans into the equivalent of ugly, dirty feedlots for fish instead of cattle.

"It's much like chickens or hogs or other confined feeding operations on land and putting them in the ocean," said Roger Rufe, president of the Ocean Conservancy. "There are considerable issues with that, pollution issues."

Treece thinks the gulf's strong currents "should take care of that."

"The solution to pollution is dilution, and that's what you got out here lots of dilution," he said.

"We've found environmental impacts to be relatively minor," Rubino said. "You don't want to crowd these together and stick them on top of coral reefs."

He added, "This is a big coastline. We're not needing a lot of space."

Critics also question whether the government should designate sections of the ocean for farming and, in effect, privatize a public resource.

Another concern: Hatchery-raised fish could be put out in open-water farms, escape into the wild and corrupt wild populations' genetic pools.

Alaskan fishermen, for example, warn that Atlantic salmon bred in fish farms is infiltrating their wild stocks.

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