U.S. Expected to Allow Fish Farms in Federal Waters

For the first time, commercial fish farms could be allowed to operate at least three miles offshore in waters administered by the federal government.

The move comes as climate change and overfishing have decimated United States fish stocks, making it harder for commercial fishermen to meet domestic demand. Other countries, particularly in Asia, now supply most of the seafood eaten in this country.

Under a new aquaculture program, expected to be approved by year’s end, up to 20 offshore fish farms would be allowed in the Gulf of Mexico over the next decade. The Gulf Aquaculture Plan would enable farmers to produce as much as 64 million pounds of fish species native to the Gulf, such as red snapper, which could generate an estimated $256 million in profit.

The type of fish farming under consideration involves submerged cages that can be as big as half a football field and hold up to a million fish.

Currently, between 84 and 91 percent of seafood sold in the United States comes from elsewhere — up 63 percent from 10 years ago — and China is the biggest supplier. As a result, the country is facing a $10.4 billion seafood trade deficit and is playing catch-up as it attempts to build its own aquaculture industry.

“This country has to get into the aquaculture business — it really does,” said Harlon Pearce, the owner of Harlon’s LA Fish & Seafood, a wholesale supplier in Kenner, La.

The nation’s entire commercial fishing industry brought in $5.3 billion worth of catches in 2011, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Louisiana brought in $331.1 million worth of seafood in 2012, more than any other Gulf state, according to the United States Department of Commerce. Fishermen from Gulf states brought in an overall total of $763 million that same year.

Federal officials think the Gulf of Mexico, with its broad continental shelf and existing oil-drilling developments, is an ideal place to begin commercial farming.

The NOAA is calling for a five-fold increase in domestic fish farming by 2025, said Holly Binns, an ocean conservation advocate for The Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit based in Philadelphia.

“Aquaculture has become the fastest-growing segment of the world’s food production,” said Ms. Binns, whose organization works to promote sustainable fishing practices. “About half of all fish eaten by consumers is from aquaculture operations.”

But the program has drawn criticism from fishermen who bring in wild catches as well as environmentalists. Their opposition has been a big reason the plan, first proposed by NOAA in 2009, has not been implemented.

One issue is how fish farming could affect traditional fishermen who sell wild catches. Prices for those fish have already been pushed down by cheap imports, and they could fall further as farming increases supply.

Fishermen also say the plan, which prohibits fishing near farming pens to protect the stock from poachers, will deprive them of prime trawling grounds.

John Williams, executive director of the Southern Shrimp Alliance, a trade group, said that though a rule the NOAA has proposed to prohibit cages in shrimping areas would help protect his industry, he remained fearful that the farms might affect wild schools, especially if the two populations accidentally mix.

“What happens when a hurricane hits?” Mr. Williams said.“What happens when pens get damaged?”

Brian O’ Hanlon, chief executive officer of Open Blue Cobia, a deepwater fish farming operation in Panama, said the risk from hurricanes is exaggerated. “When you dive down and see these pens, it’s a very calm environment,” Mr. O’ Hanlon said. “There is still a lot of current and movement but nothing like you see on the surface. They’re protected.”

The plan is also opposed by groups like Food and Water Watch. Some environmentalists cite research at near-shore fish farms that show how keeping large populations of fish in an enclosed area can contribute to the spread of disease, contamination from fish waste and overuse of wild bait for feed.

But aquaculture advocates claim that the areas being opened by the federal government would mitigate some of those problems because water flows are stronger farther out in the ocean.The brisk current would help, for instance, to dilute fish waste.

Some aquaculture advocates themselves are skeptical of starting this kind of program in the Gulf of Mexico. Daniel Benetti, director of the aquaculture program at the University of Miami, who for 30 years has sought to bring fish farming to the Gulf, said he had recently come to view aquaculture as uneconomical for the area and preferred simply restocking the Gulf.

“Anyone here would need incentives because the Gulf of Mexico is not competitive,” Dr. Benetti said. “There’s too many issues. We shouldn’t do aquaculture in the Gulf. It’s not a good place.”

“The rest of the world has made all the mistakes for us,” said Mr. Pearce, the fish and seafood supplier, who is also the commissioner-at-large for the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. “As long as we kind of follow their lead in some respects and not make the same mistakes that they’ve made in the past with all the water quality, then we should be fine and the Gulf of Mexico, particularly off the coast of Louisiana, is perfect for doing this.”