NEW ORLEANS — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) decision to approve industrial offshore fish farming last month in federally protected waters in the Gulf of Mexico is a strong concern in a "delicate and restricted estuarine system," according to a leading non-profit fisherman’s organization.
Eric Brazer, deputy director at the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders' Alliance, told the Louisiana Record that there are strong concerns with constructing an aquaculture facility of unprecedented size.
“We’ve already seen the catastrophic damage of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in this sensitive ecosystem,” Brazer said. “It will likely take generations to understand the true ecological and economic cost, the latter of which is already on the order of billions of dollars.”
Finalized in January, the plan for the aqua farms will permit up to 20 industrial facilities, which will see approximately 64 million pounds of fish produced every year in the Gulf of Mexico. This is the same amount of wild fish currently caught in the Gulf of Mexico annually, meaning that farmed fish would double offerings and flood the market.
Brazer said that it will be future generations who suffer as a result.
“It is our commercial fishing and charter businesses in the Gulf of Mexico, and those of the next generation, that will be the ones carrying the entire burden of risk that comes out of this new aquaculture industry," he said.
A suit was filed against NOAA by a number of Gulf fishing groups, including Brazer's organization, in the U.S. Eastern District Court of Louisiana on Feb. 12. The suit alleges that NOAA has no authority to undertake the offshore fish farming, and that allowing aqua farms is a threat to native and endangered species, the ecosystem, and the fish we eat.
“Unlike the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, which cover 41 million and 64 million square miles, respectively, the 600,000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico are nearly completely surrounded by land,” Brazer said. “The Gulf effectively acts like a closed system with finite limits on nutrient loading and effluent.”
For 365 days of the year, commercial fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico make sacrifices in order to build a sustainable fishery that can deliver Gulf red snapper to American seafood consumers. Collectively, the fishermen have invested millions of dollars into the fishing and seafood supply businesses, Brazer said.
“They have put conservation and accountability first because they know that their long-term benefits outweigh the short-term gains of overfishing,” Brazer said.
Many commercial fishermen can be found spending more time on land protecting the fisheries than actually fishing offshore, Brazer said. So-much-so, that on a regular basis many fishermen will travel to Washington D.C. to educate Congress, fight for the protection of the Magnuson-Stevens Conservation and Management Act (MSA), support bills that improve fishery data collection, fight against illegal fishing practices, or spend time on the nation’s only conservation-based seafood traceability program, Gulf Wild, which promotes seafood protection and consumer awareness.
“We pride ourselves on the fact that we’re engaged in helping today’s fishing and marine regulations protect the current and future generations of fishermen and seafood suppliers,” Brazer said.
The suit alleges that in a bid to push offshore fish farming forward without a new law permitting it, and get around Congress, NOAA created a permitting scheme through the Gulf Council by exceeding its authority to regulate fishing under the MSA. The suit also states that NOAA is ready to deem offshore aquaculture as fishing, which plaintiffs say, it is not.
“The U.S. Congress has taken up the issue of establishing federal law on managing aquaculture in federal waters,” Brazer said. “But on at least three occasions in the last 15 years, [it has] decided not to do so due to the controversy and uncertainty it created.”
Industrial aquaculture in open waters is linked to serious health and environmental concerns including the escapement of farmed fish into the wild, genetic intermixing with wild fish and altering their genetics and behaviors, the spread of diseases and parasites from farmed fish to wild fish and other marine life, and the implications with catching that much forage fish for feed, in addition to nutrient and effluent issues.
To think that these won’t ever happen is unrealistic and naïve, Brazer said.
“Fishery sustainability is about more than just fishing," he said. "It’s about conservation, accountability, consumption and education. (Commercial fishermen in the Gulf are) acutely aware of threats to what they’ve collectively built and will always advocate for making informed decisions.”