Unlikely allies oppose gulf fish farming

Fishery council members hear from mariculture's broad opposition.

By STEPHEN NOHLGREN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 11, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - From pollution, to hurricanes to animal cruelty, federal regulators got an earful Monday night from people worried about offshore fish farming in the Gulf of Mexico.

Though shallow-water farms are common from Vietnam to Scotland, the gulf has largely remained free of fish that eat, grow and get harvested from pens and cages.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which regulates federal waters, wants to encourage marine aquaculture and is working to set up some ground rules.

A public hearing Monday night, however, created a rare scene in fish-policy circles: About 70 commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen, environmentalists and just plain citizens - who are often adversaries - cheered each other on for a mutual cause.

They almost all hate the idea.

"This seems counterproductive to what we are trying to do with coastal pollution from the land. Now you are talking about putting it out in the ocean," said Cathy Harrelson of the Suncoast Sierra Club. "It's kind of like an IV. It goes straight in."

Though fish waste, excess feed and veterinary medicines have degraded water in some near-shore farms, like the salmon industry, regulators have said that aquaculture cages off Florida probably would be submerged 20 to 50 miles offshore. Currents would disperse any pollutants.

Though the proposed rules would forbid nonnative species, speakers wondered what would happen if thousands of fish bred from the same parents got out of their cages. "We live in the hurricane capital of the world," said Sal Versaggi, a Tampa shrimp processor. "What's going to happen to those pens in a hurricane? There is going to be escapement. What will happen with our wild stocks?"

Modern mariculture cages, about the size of four-bedroom houses, might hold 7,000 to 10,000 fish.

Lee Silverstein said she eats a little fish but no meat, in part because of antibiotics and chemicals often used to treat pigs and cows in huge feedlots. "Where is the kindness to fish to put them in this unnatural position?" Silverstein said. "It's cruelty."

Large cages can cost $100,000, plus the cost of mooring them to the bottom in 100 feet of water or deeper. People familiar with mariculture say eight cages spread over dozens of acres is a minimum size to be economically viable.

"This is not a mom-and-pop operation," said University of South Florida biologist John Ogden. "This is a major industrial operation and should be treated as such."

Though the proposed rules would eventually set standards for genetic diversity, health conditions and environmental monitoring, scientists don't know enough about the gulf's bottom, currents and creatures to keep proper tabs, Ogden said.

Of 16 speakers, only Melissa Thompson of the Institute for Biomedical Philosophy offered back-handed support. Harvesting farmed fish might take pressure off heavily fished wild stocks, she said. Tiny organisms would grow on the cages and excess feed would attract wild fish, creating new fishing holes.


"This is going on in China. This is going on Mexico. If we don't put in regulations, it's going to be happening somewhere else," she said.

The management council may vote on the regulations at its next meeting in January, which will be held in St. Petersburg.

"There should be causes for concern. It's a new and untried area," said council member Bob Gill, a commercial fisherman from Crystal River who chaired the hearing.

"What the council is trying to do is define what is okay and what is not okay before someone comes in and wants to try it."