Gulf fish farm plan becomes law, permitting rules in the works

— A plan to allow fish farms in the Gulf of Mexico became law Thursday, drawing quick rebuke from environmental and consumer groups who fought it.

But a lot still has to happen before the seafood on American dinner tables comes from huge open ocean pens rather than a fishermen’s hook.

Although the aquaculture plan is in effect, it is in a sort of limbo.

Permitting rules to put the plan into action have yet to be written, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Thursday it is writing a national policy in coming months to govern marine aquaculture.

The aquaculture plan, recommended earlier this year by a federal Gulf of Mexico fisheries panel, took effect after the time had elapsed for the Commerce Department to either accept or reject it.

Allowing the Gulf plan to take effect in the absence of a national policy adds up to a lot of uncertainty about open ocean aquaculture and its effect on marine ecosystems, ocean advocates said.

“That should cause lots of folks on the Gulf some pause,” The Ocean Conservancy’s aquaculture program director George Leonard said Thursday.

Fishermen, environmental groups and consumer watchdogs lined up against the Gulf plan at hearings around the Gulf in the past year.

They said the Gulf plan raised too many concerns about how marine ecosystems would be effected by escaped fish, fish waste, drugs and chemicals used in aquaculture facilities and the spread of disease.

A national policy will put a focus on environmental safeguards and lay out a clear permitting process to encourage investments in aquaculture, said Jim Balsiger, acting assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries.

“We are interested in aquaculture done correctly,” he said Thursday.

More than 80 percent of the U.S. seafood supply is imported and about half of those imports are from aquaculture, according to federal figures.

Questions about NOAA’s authority to approve the Gulf plan has added a wrinkle to the aquaculture debate.

In a statement Thursday, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said allowing the plan to become law without a decision on it either way was the “best approach to the situation.”

Rejecting it on the grounds that NOAA did not have regulatory authority over aquaculture would have created regulatory gaps that might have allowed fish farming to expand unregulated in federal waters, she said in the statement.

The Gulf plan was too broad to approve without a national framework in place, the statement said.

Balsiger said the Gulf plan won’t steer development of the national policy but that he expects “very little disagreement” between the Gulf plan and the national policy.

He called it “possible but unlikely” that fish farms could pop up in the Gulf of Mexico before a national framework is in place.

An aquaculture policy is on the top of Lubchenco’s desk, Balsiger said.

“I don’t think it will languish,” he said.

Follow environment reporter Eric Staats at twitter.com/ndn_estaats.

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