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Offshore fish farms - a solution or a problem?

Legislation calls for expanding fish farming up to 200 miles from shore, raising environmental concerns.

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Fish farming has long been viewed as a way to help fill dinner bowls worldwide while easing the pressure on declining populations of wild ocean fish.

Now the US aquaculture industry is poised to shed its coastal cloak to farm deeper waters. Tuesday, the Bush administration sent a bill to Capitol Hill that would open 3.4 million square miles of ocean - roughly the land area of the lower 48 states - to fish farms.

The bill would allow the US secretary of Commerce to issue permits for fish farms in federal waters, up to 200 miles offshore.

The proposed legislation represents the latest effort to implement recommendations from the US Commission on Ocean Policy, which last fall sent the White House its blueprint for overhauling the approach the country takes to managing its vast offshore resources. It also represents the start of a process that will give various "stakeholders" - including the aquaculture industry, environmental groups, state and local officials - an opportunity to help shape the rules, federal officials say.

"Our goal is to develop a sustainable aquaculture program that balances the needs of fishermen, coastal residents and visitors, seafood consumers, the environment, and the aquaculture industry," said Conrad Lautenbacher Jr., administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in a prepared statement.

The measure comes at a time of rising global demand for fish as a source of dietary protein, declining fisheries, and rising aquaculture efforts overseas. By 2030, less than half of the fish humans consume will come from wild stocks, according to United Nations estimates. Aquaculture will dominate. Global consumption is expected to reach 110 million metric tons of fish within the next five years.

In the US, "nutritionists are asking us to eat twice as much seafood as we do," says Michael Rubino, manager of NOAA's aquaculture program. "At the moment we import 70 percent of our seafood, and wild fisheries won't be able to meet future market demand. So any increase in supplies is coming from aquaculture. The question is, do we keep importing it, or do we produce some domestically?"

Currently, the US consumes 6 million metric tons of fish a year. By 2025, US consumption is expected to grow by another 2 million metric tons.

"If we could produce that here, that would create 500,000 direct jobs, and 100,000 or more indirect jobs, and contribute about $5 billion in revenue," Dr. Rubino says.

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