Require LEIS for fish farming in ocean waters

June 9, 2005

Re: Require LEIS as mandated by law oppose NOAA's proposed National Aquaculture Act Dear Representative,

To protect our oceans and native fish populations, human health and fishing businesses, I urge you to ensure that proposed legislation regarding fish farming in ocean waters is preceded by a legislative environmental impact statement (LEIS), as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. Fifteen members of Congress already have asked NOAA to conduct this required LEIS, but NOAA has taken no action to comply with the law.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) legislation, the National Aquaculture Act, is on Capitol Hill. It's goal is to promote offshore aquaculture in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone. This legislation does not adequately protect our oceans or fisheries, family fishing businesses, and promises to wreck havoc on the economic interests of coastal communities along our shores.

Fish farming is often promoted falsely as an answer to dwindling wild fish stocks and the growing US seafood trade deficit. The Department of Commerce has called for a five-fold increase in domestic aquaculture production by 2025.

A recurrent rationale for subsidizing industrial aquaculture is that it's needed for national or food security. NOAA's legislation, however, benefits multinational corporations such as PanFish. The profits are taken out of the region. The pollution and problems remain.

By siting operations offshore in the Exclusive Economic Zone (three to 200 miles offshore), local state laws and regulations can be subverted. Alaska, for instance, prohibits fish farms in its state waters, yet under NOAA's legislation, floating feedlots could be placed as close as three miles to the richest salmon-producing rivers in the world.

Some types of aquaculture offer potential benefits. Farm-raised oysters, clams and mussels, for instance, do not require wild fish for feed and these species actually can improve water quality. Farming shellfish in nets, trays or racks suspended in the water is an ocean-friendly alternative to dredging.

Most offshore aquaculture, however, poses serious risks to marine ecosystems, native fish stocks, and public health. For instance, from 1996 to 1999, more than 600,000 non-native Atlantic salmon escaped from fish farms into Washington state waters. These non-native fish compete with wild, native fish for food and spawning territory and carry deadly parasites and pathogens. Antibiotics, steroids, chemical dips and vaccinations are widely used by fish farms to treat or prevent disease caused by cramped conditions cause additional impacts. Large quantities of uneaten feed and wastes also are discharged from farms directly into the fluid environment of ocean waters.

The argument that offshore aquaculture is needed to augment dwindling fish stocks and reduce the nation's "seafood deficit" is questionable. Aquaculture usually does not ease pressure on declining wild populations. Often, it does the opposite. It takes two to five pounds of fish to raise one pound of farmed brown shrimp. Most marine finfish also are carnivores and require large amounts of pellet feed made mostly from wild-caught fish. Farming marine finfish actually diminishes rather than adding to the net supply of fish. As aquaculture moves towards production of more carnivorous species, the collapse of wild fish populations will be hastened.

The economic balance also is not favorable. Wild salmon business incomes and fishing business license values dropped precipitously when farmed salmon replaced wild salmon in restaurants and stores. Between 1990 and 2002, the price for many limited-entry salmon permits in Alaska fell by 75 to 90 percent, plummeting in one fishery — Bristol Bay — from $300,000 to $30,000. Thousands of families lost significant income because of artificially low fish prices; many face crippling debt and bankruptcy. NOAA additionally does not explain why the US seafood trade deficit must be reduced while at the same time the US government is promoting free trade, and does not address why the seafood deficit is cause for special concern relative to trade deficits in other goods such as electronics and textiles.

NOAA is required to conduct an assessment of risks under the National Environmental Policy Act before submitting its legislation to Congress. The legislative environmental impact statement (LEIS) also ensures the public receives necessary information so people can comment on how the bill directly affects them and commonly owned resources. Fifteen members of Congress and additional stakeholders have requested that NOAA comply with NEPA, but NOAA has rejected these requests. Rather than comply with federal law, NOAA has ignored the requests dating from late 2003. NOAA must be required to follow the law, especially since the drafted bill does not provide sufficient safeguards to ensure our oceans, fisheries and public health are protected.

Specific concerns, based on our understanding of NOAA's proposed legislation include:

  • Almost total discretion given to NOAA regarding permits and conditions;
  • No coordination with other offshore uses such as navigation, recreation, defense, or fishing except "to the extent practicable;"
  • The risks, once considered, may be legally ignored. There's a lack of baseline environmental protections for incorporation within permits. Few requirements ask more than to "consider risks to and impacts on" natural fish stocks, the coastal environment, water quality and habitat — and once considered, they may be dismissed.
  • Allowing genetically modified and non-native fish will compete with and cause harm to native populations;
  • No clear process for public or state government participation in the consideration of permits;
  • Lack of provisions such as those required of other offshore industries, making the permittee responsible for the life of the offshore structures and providing for financial and environmental risks, including bankruptcy;
  • An unrealistic boiler-plate penalty section almost impossible to trigger based on the lack of standards;
  • Lack of enforcement and citizen suit provisions;
  • Absence of rapid response provisions for known risks, such as disease outbreaks.

Two recent national commissions, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and the Pew Oceans Commission, recommended that ocean uses be better managed and coordinated. NOAA's bill does not accomplish such coordination.

For these reasons, we urge you to forgo sponsorship of the Department of Commerce's proposal at this time. Please, only support legislation that would ensure protection of our oceans and fisheries and ensure any aquaculture in public waters enhances, not diminishes, our nation's and world food supply.

Sincerely,

Tracy Wolpert
Chief Executive Officer

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