Long thought to be an almost inexhaustible source of cod, halibut, and haddock, the world's fisheries are on the verge of collapse even as an exploding global population demands more protein. One solution -- massive offshore fish farms -- may help to feed the world, but it could also ignite a spirited political battle for control of the seas.
Researchers say the global fish harvest will have to increase by nearly 50 percent by 2020 just to meet new demand in China and other developing countries. And with three-quarters of global fisheries either near collapse or becoming unsustainable, onshore or near-shore fish farming has been seen until recently as the best solution. Currently, about a third of the global fish harvest comes from this type of aquaculture.
But high costs and environmental concerns suggest that this approach is not the answer. As Charles C. Mann reports in Wired (May 2004), some believe the real future of fish farming lies far from shore. 'Preventing catastrophic overfishing will require aquaculture on an unprecedented scale,' he writes, 'and that means forging out into the open ocean.' One futuristic scheme would set massive cages adrift on ocean currents, to arrive in distant ports just as the fish inside get big enough to eat.
Another plan, now under way, is to build open-ocean pens that look like huge Chinese lanterns fixed to the ocean bottom. These structures will yield tens of thousands of fish, according to proponents like Cliff Goudey, director of MIT's Center for Fisheries Engineering Research. 'If it doesn't happen,' he says, 'I'm afraid we'll destroy the seas.'
Researchers in the United States and other countries have already launched pilot 'ocean ranches' in their so-called Exclusive Economic Zones. An EEZ is a band of water extending from three miles to 200 miles off a nation's shore. By global agreement, countries control the undersea resources in their EEZs, including fish and mineral rights. Until now, however, the U.S. EEZ has been a kind of national commons managed on behalf of the American public. For open-ocean aquaculture to take off as an industry, fishing rites in portions of the EEZ would have to be put under private control.
In an effort to make that a reality, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is drawing up new federal legislation that would create a streamlined regulatory process the agency would oversee. Critics say that the open-ocean concept is overhyped and undertested and could lead to serious environmental harm. Small fishing communities could be hurt, and selling off territorial waters to the highest bidder will open the door to all kinds of industrial activity in territorial waters around the world. What's more, they add, NOAA has become too industry-friendly and is creating this new policy without proper public input.
'Though funded by public money, the process of developing open-ocean aquaculture has been conducted with an astonishingly arrogant degree of secrecy,' Ben Belton writes in The Ecologist magazine (July/Aug. 2004). Belton, a sociologist, is the co-author of a report by the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) on the effects of offshore fish farming. Among their concerns: Fish waste could pollute nearby waters. Certain diseases associated with fish farms could spread beyond the cages. And farm-bred fish could escape from their confines, genetically contaminating wild stocks.
The result, in Belton's view, would be the marine equivalent of industrial hog farms. While NOAA officials insist that the 'footprint' of any such facility would be small, others say that's not entirely the issue. 'Cumulatively,' Belton writes, 'the effects of several large farms close together could be devastating.' He also argues that the plan could serve as a cover for the big oil companies, who would rather turn their defunct offshore platforms into aquaculture centers than clean them up. It's all part of a pattern that's emerged under President George W. Bush, he adds. Private interests trump environmental concerns at every turn, a situation cloaked in 'secrecy, deception, and breathtakingly disingenuous PR.'
As for the aquaculture bill that NOAA has been helping to draft, some say it's headed to Congress before year's end, though as of September the agency said it had no way of confirming that. Belton and his IATP co-authors want the federal government to issue a moratorium on all open-ocean development until the country's lawmakers have a chance to draw up tough new regulations. Their wish list includes a law to ensure that every proposal is fully studied for its environmental effects. They also want all permits to be temporary.
The greatest concern, critics warn, is that aquaculture is only the start of a wider trend toward privatizing the seas. And hungry for the billions of dollars to be made by selling off those waters, a deficit-strapped U.S. government may be ready to lead the way.