The Great Open Ocean Sell-Off

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

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