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Fish farms in the ocean? Group pushes Congress to pass tough rules.

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With an eye toward putting more homegrown fish fillets on American plates, the US government is laying the groundwork to open its offshore waters to industrial-scale fish farms.

But before it opens vast areas of ocean to aquaculture, Washington needs to ensure that fish farms don't sully the wider waters that nurture them, according to several experts. These experts offered a blueprint for building a sustainable offshore aquaculture industry in a report released earlier this week.

It calls for the federal government to grant permits for farms in the waters between three miles and 200 miles offshore. To receive those permits, owners would have to comply with strict water-quality standards. The fish they could farm would be limited largely to local native species. If owners wanted to grow nonnative species, they would have to show that the harm to wild species in the area would be small if members of their "crop" escape. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would grant and oversee the permits.

The report – from the grass-roots Marine Aquaculture Task Force – comes as lawmakers and NOAA are preparing draft legislation to open the nation's offshore waters to fish farming. Some 40 percent of the fish Americans eat come from overseas fish farms, according to the US Commerce Department. This contributes to an $8 billion seafood trade deficit. The Bush administration aims to expand today's $1 billion-a-year aquaculture industry to $5 billion a year by 2025.

But using fish farms to meet the world's growing demand for protein is controversial.

Advocates see industrial-scale deep-sea aquaculture as inevitable. Marine scientists estimate that some 70 percent of marine fisheries are so heavily fished that the species either aren't reproducing fast enough to replace the losses, or they are barely keeping pace. Aquaculture, proponents argue, can help meet demand for fish and help allow wild fish stocks to rebuild.

Opponents, however, cite a range of problems. Based on experiences with modern aquaculture so far, relatively pampered farmed fish can escape and breed with wild stocks, rendering wild fish less genetically fit to survive the harsh conditions they face. Similar concerns accompany the prospect of farming genetically modified fish. Farms can undercut the quality of seawater in the area as nutrient levels – as well as antibiotics or other drugs in the feed – increase beyond the ecosystem's ability to cleanse the water. And fish farming can lead to overfishing of the species used as feed. Growers raising carnivorous fin fish must supply roughly three pounds of fish meal and oil to raise one pound of farmed fish.

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