Fish farm debate likely to heat up again

By Steve Phillips - bio | email

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - Fish farming in the Gulf of Mexico is getting renewed attention after the Obama administration gave the go ahead Thursday for aquaculture operations in federal waters.

Supporters say such fish farms are inevitable to help meet the world's growing seafood demand, while some environmentalists call the idea a "recipe for disaster."

"There are not going to be any places coming on line tomorrow. It's going to be awhile," said Dr. Tom McIlwain at Gulf Coast Research Lab in Ocean Springs.

And Dr. McIlwain knows about fish farming. Not only does he oversee land-based aquaculture projects at Gulf Coast Research Lab, he represents Mississippi on the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Council. He favors responsible, regulated offshore fish farming.

"We have a tremendous trade deficit in fishery products. It's third behind oil and automobiles. So, we need to address that issue. We need good, high quality seafood for everybody to eat and something we can be confident in," he said.

There are already large aquaculture operations around the world.  Opponents worry about pollution and disease problems.

But the GCRL's Dr. Jeffrey Lotz says U.S. know-how and oversight can overcome those obstacles.

"One of the advantages that the United States has over some other countries where aquaculture is very big, is that the regulatory and technological framework within which we operate allows us to have a much better chance to do these things correctly," Dr. Lotz said.

"There's all kinds of problems associated with this," Louis Skrmetta said.

He raised concerns about pollution and disease 20 years ago, when he helped stop a proposed fish farm south of Horn Island. Skrmetta has similar concerns about aquaculture in the Gulf.

"Plus, to feed the fish you have to catch wild fish out of the sound, which are our menhaden. And I'm definitely opposed to putting any more pressure on our menhaden stock. I'd like to see limits placed on menhaden, not more pressure put on those to feed farm fish. It's crazy," he said.

Both sides agree that adequate regulations are needed to safeguard and oversee any aquaculture operations in the gulf.

Federal government statistics say fish farming is the fastest growing form of food production in the world. Fish farms supply nearly half of the seafood eaten worldwide. Aquaculture in the United States accounts for only $1 billion a year, while worldwide aquaculture is worth $70 billion.

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