Washington Will at Last Regulate Fish Farms

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Chances are pretty good that the last fish you ate never saw a river or the open ocean. That’s because the U.S. imports 84% of the 5 billion lbs. of seafood we consume each year and more than half of that is raised on fish farms and other aquaculture operations. The U.S., however, has not gotten invested in the aquaculture game as heavily as the rest of the world, in part because of environmental concerns and the lack of a coherent federal policy controlling the practice.

As I noted in a posting about the perils of Chilean farmed salmon back in June, waste, antibiotics and other effluvium from fish farms can run into nearby waterways, contaminating wild fish with the chemicals and waste generated by raising captive ones. Nets that surround the farms can also entangle dolphins and turtles. And the risk is always present that genetically manipulated farmed fish could escape and breed with wild fish.

But underinvesting in aquaculture can do its own kind of damage. With wild fish stocks collapsing worldwide, it’s environmental folly to keep dragging the deep for the last surviving members of any species, pushing it to the edge of extinction. What’s more, the $9 billion we spend importing fish each year does not do America’s growing trade imbalance any favors. And for consumers, eating farmed fish can be a lot cheaper than eating wild fish—as any shopper who’s ever faced the economic no-brainer of deciding between $11 per lb. farmed salmon and $22 per lb. wild salmon knows.

Both our wallets and the oceans may have gotten a break today with the announcement by the  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that it was at last proposing formal aquaculture guidelines, which, once in place, would allow the industry to operate in what are now off-limits federal waters. The new rules would codify how fish farms would be monitored and how they were permitted to operate and would designate which kinds of fish could be raised there—banning certain non-native species, for example, until it could be proven that they would play nicely with native species should they escape into the wild.

Enviros are wary of the plan, worrying that the rules are currently too vague to work effectively, and they may have a point. But nothing would actually be put into practice until sometime after April 11, when the mandatory comment period ends. If that period does what it’s designed to do, it might generate some good ideas for tightening the rules and seeing to it that they, too, meet their intended ends.

The ability of the government to do anything efficiently or well is always open to question—particularly in the current political climate, in which the very idea of Washington regulating industry is anathema to some people. Still, there’s reason to be optimistic about the new rules, if only because of which part of Washington is behind them. NOAA is one of the most well-respected and scientifically sound of government agencies, and if the name of its administrator, Jane Lubchenco, sounds familiar, it should. She was one of the coolest heads and wisest minds responding to the BP oil spill last spring and summer.