Sunday, April 1, 2018
FARMING ISN'T FISHING, BUT IT COULD BE FINAGLING
On August 19, 2017, a badly-maintained salmon pen owned by Cooke Aquaculture Pacific collapsed, allowing a quarter-million farmed Atlantic salmon—give or take 10,000 or so—to escape into the waters of Washington State.
In response, Washington fined Cooke Aquaculture $332,000 for its poor maintenance policies. The fine might be seen as little more than a cost of doing business for Cooke Aquaculture, a Canadian company which maintains operations in six different nations and grossed $2.5 billion in revenues last year. However, it will be harder for Cooke to shake off a recent law passed by the Washington legislature, which will require all Atlantic salmon farms to be gone from the state by 2025.
While it doesn’t appear that the escaped Atlantic salmon will have a negative impact on stressed—and in some cases endangered—Pacific salmon runs, the possibility that escaped salmon could spread parasites and disease to native populations has not been ruled out.
There is reason to worry; fish farms have often proven to be poor neighbors for native fish, causing habitat destruction and pollution in addition to disease and parasite concerns.
Thus, I was more than a little surprised last Wednesday when Bill Shedd, the keynote speaker at the National Marine Fisheries Service’s 2018 Recreational Fishing Summit, endorsed open-water fish farms as a way to improve the health of fish stocks and the quality of saltwater angling.
Now, Mr. Shedd knows about open-water fish farms. He’s the Chairman of the Board of the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, which has “played a leadership role for over 35 years in developing innovative replenishment solutions,” so it’s probably not surprising that when he talks about making “a bigger pie” that can supply a larger user base, he thinks first of farms—and thinks nothing of serving as Vice Chairman of an organization, the Center for Sportfishing Policy, which praised last summer’s Commerce Department decision to overfish Gulf of Mexico red snapper and delay their overbuilding by as much as six years.
Overfishing a stock and delaying its recovery hardly seems to be the logical way to bake a “bigger pie,” but if you’ve got fish farms…
But then, when you stop to think about it, fish farms don’t provide any fish to anglers at all—unless you’re talking about the kind of fish farms that we call “hatcheries,” which pump out man-made substitutes for naturally-reproduced fish so that anglers can continue to fish at biologically unsustainable levels. So exactly how do fish farms help recreational fishermen?
I guess it’s red snapper time once again…
Unlike the commercial red snapper fishermen, which haven’t exceeded its annual catch limit for more than a decade, red snapper anglers in the Gulf of Mexico regularly exceed their allocation; with an assist from the Secretary of Commerce, they caught 212% of their total allowable catch last year.
Also unlike the commercial snapper fishermen, Gulf red snapper anglers seem to find serious problems with any proposed management measures that might realistically constrain their harvest to or below their annual catch target.
So it has become pretty clear that if anglers aren’t staying within their annual catch target and are unwilling to adopt management measures likely to constrain their harvest, the only other choice that they have is to try to steal some fish from the commercial sector.
Their last effort didn’t turn out so well. The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council agreed to increase the recreational share of the total allowable red snapper catch from 49 to 51.5 percent, but when the new allocation was challenged in court, the judge decided that such allocation was based on years when the recreational sector exceeded its quota, and found that an allocation based on such excess was inherently unfair and invalid.
Thus, the recreational folks needed a new way to grab some of the commercial landings.
Fish farms might be a way.
The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council adopted an Aquaculture Fishery Management Plan in 2009, but didn’t open the permitting process until January 2016. Up to twenty fish-farming companies would be issued permits pursuant to the Aquaculture management plan; seven species of fish, including red drum, mutton snapper, almaco jack, greater amberjack, dolphin and red snapper would be the most likely fish to be cultivated.
A number of organizations led by the Center for Food Safety, and including a number of environmental, commercial and for-hire fishing groups, immediately filed suit in an effort to prevent any permits from being granted. Their primary contention was that the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, pursuant to which the Aquaculture Management Plan was adopted, did not in fact give NMFS any authority to regulate aquaculture; Magnuson-Stevens only governed fishing, and aquaculture wasn’t any sort of “fishing” at all.
The plain language of Magnuson-Stevens, which defined “fishing” as
“the catching, taking, or harvesting of fish; the attempted catching, taking, or harvesting of fish; any other activity which can reasonably be expected to result in the catching, taking, or harvesting of fish; or any operations at sea in support of, or in preparation for, any [of the aforementioned activities] [internal numbering deleted]”
doesn’t appear to apply to farming activities. While “harvesting” is mentioned, breeding, growing, feeding, or any of the other activities normally associated with farming are not.
In addition, since the last reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens in 2006, there have been a number of bills introduced in Congress that were intended to give NMFS authority to regulate aquaculture, the most recent of them being the National Sustainable Offshore Aquaculture Act of 2011, which included among its stated purposes
“To establish a regulatory system for sustainable offshore aquaculture in the United States exclusive economic zone,”
“To authorize the Secretary of Commerce to determine appropriate locations for, permit, regulate, monitor, and enforce offshore aquaculture in the exclusive economic zone.”
While not clearly dispositive of the issue, the fact that Congress was contemplating establishing a regulatory system for offshore aquaculture, and authorizing the Secretary of Commerce to oversee such regulation, strongly suggests that neither the system nor the authority exists today.
But even if NMFS had such authority, the complaint in the lawsuit provides other reasons to oppose the offshore fish farms, and they were reasons likely to catch fishermen’s attention. It alleges that the problems with aquaculture include
“the escape of confined fish from their containment; the spread of potentially deadly diseases and parasites from aquaculture facilities to wild fish and other marine wildlife; the pollution of ocean ecosystems from the inputs (e.g., drugs, pesticides, fungicides, algaecides) and outputs (wastes) of industrial aquaculture; the privatization of ocean resources; threats to marine life and marine ecosystems from aquaculture systems; market displacement and price competition from cheaply produced farmed fish; adverse economic effects on fishing businesses; and trickle-down effects to communities and families that depend on healthy wild fish stocks and ocean ecosystems for their livelihoods. [emphasis added]”
Research done on an experimental fish farm off Puerto Rico seems to have found that some such concerns were unfounded; open-water aquaculture facilities don’t appear to change water chemistry, lead to waste build-ups, etc. However, the enclosures used in the fish farms do seem to serve as fish aggregation devices, pulling in a number of different species of fish from outside the immediate area.
Assuming that such devices do not also increase the reproduction of such species, they would have the effect of aggregating wild fish in an area not accessible to recreational (or commercial) fishermen and, in so doing, reduce recreational access to fishery resources.
That would be a strange thing for recreational fishermen to support, particularly considering all of the emphasis that recreational fishing groups are placing on “access” these days…
And it’s not entirely clear that the Puerto Rico research completely addresses some of the other risk issues. A 2004 paper made available by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council notes that
“fish escapements from net cages could arguably be detrimental to the environment. Even though these fish are native, endemic to the region and healthy, many researchers believe that such escapements could compromise the genetic makeup of the local population of the species.”
Aside from the genetic concerns raised in that passage, recreational fishermen should note the statement that the fish in question are “native” to the area—that is, at least the initial breeding stock, and perhaps later spawners, are removed from the natural population of fish.
That, again, makes it more surprising that angling organizations, which oppose catch share programs, by saying things like
“Putting ownership of a wildlife resource into the hands of a private business for its own profit is a dramatic departure from the way this country has traditionally managed wildlife resources”
seem to have no problem when fish farmers obtain their broodstock from the public resources that swim in the open sea.
But maybe everything else is worth it to them if they can just hurt the commercial fishery by undercutting its sales with cheap, factory-farmed fish, and maybe put commercial fishermen out of business. They can use the farms as one big finagle; with the commercial fishery crippled, they could take over its unused quota.
It’s hard to think of any other reason that members of the angling community would support private farming activities that are based on wild broodstock removed from a public resource.
It’s hard to think of another reason why anglers might support an industrial fish production process, that ties up large areas of ocean where access is denied to anglers, a process that attracts fish from still-public waters and aggregates them around inaccessible pens, where they’re at risk from any diseases or parasite infestations that spring up in the crowded factory farms—or, even if the farms are pestilence-free, are at risk of genetic pollution from farm escapees.
But it’s easy to think of a safer alternative to industrial fish farms, a risk-averse path to Mr. Shedd’s bigger pie.
It’s called conservation.
It’s a lot less expensive than industrial fish farms. It doesn’t wall off acres of water, breed disease, or cause genetic dilution.
But it does take patience. It takes responsibility. It takes anglers willing to put aside the destructive, childish demands for instant gratification, the sort of demands that led to the Gulf red snapper reopening last spring, and replace them with a more mature view that can conceive of the greater, long term good for both the fish and the fisherman—recreational and commercial—that conservation can bring.
Conservation is not as high-tech as a fish farm. It takes a bit longer. But it produces a big and nourishing pie, without the use of any artificial ingredients at all.
And that’s a good thing, for in building a bigger fish “pie,” organic is the right way to go.