A new threat for the Gulf: industrial finfish farms

In the over 25 years that Healthy Gulf has worked across the Gulf region, it seems like every passing year brings some type of new threat to our waterways and communities. The most recent one is a plan for industrial-scale finfish farms in the open waters of the Gulf—giant cages where millions of pounds of fish would be raised for market. Amazingly, it’s the Federal government working to push this forward.

These huge farms of caged fish would be nothing like the way fish live in the wild. Wild fish move constantly in search of food, they consume the wild food provided by the surrounding waters, and they exist in balance with the ecosystem where they live. It’s a beautiful system that keeps everything in a dynamic equilibrium where nothing goes to waste and the system is self-sustaining with no outside inputs needed.

Fish crowded into the giant cages of industrial scale fish farms don’t live this way, and the public seems to well understand the inherent problems. For one, from what we know of factory farming of pigs, cattle and chickens on land, we know that growing animals in an industrial manner causes terrible impacts to the animals and the natural environment. Whenever we try to raise large amounts of animal protein in cheap industrial settings, trouble follows. Animals get sick, pollution from waste is cast away to foul waterways, and even the quality of the protein produced can be diminished when we stray from the more natural ways and try to cut corners in order maximize production.

Raising finfish also means that smaller fish must be harvested and processed into feed for the farmed fish, which can take important fish like menhaden out of the Gulf. These smaller forage fish are vitally important because popular sportfish like redfish and seatrout as well as marine mammals like dolphins feed heavily on menhaden, and overharvesting them for fish farms could leave too few to sustain wild marine life.

Many believe that the concept of using the shared resources of the Gulf to raise finfish so that private companies can make profits for shareholders is not in the spirit of how our common resources should be used. In fact, the fish proposed to be raised are high dollar fish that will fetch a premium price on restaurant menus, not bring sustenance to those in need. So, it is indeed questionable as to what type of larger public purpose would be met by allowing industrial finfish farming in the Gulf.

In the Gulf of Mexico, the Federal government has proposed what they call aquaculture opportunity areas (AOA). These are nine separate areas in Federal waters of the Gulf where the government is working to facilitate private companies opening large fish farms, by providing help with site selection, permitting and other technical assistance. There are three proposed areas located off each of the states of Florida, Louisiana and Texas.

Separately from that there are also proposals from private companies that have applied for permits to install fish farms offshore in the Gulf. The one farthest along is called Velella Epsilon, a small demonstration fish farm proposed for a location in the Gulf west of Sarasota, FL. Another company called Manna Farms has applied for permits for a farm of 12 large cages raising 4 million pounds of fish annually some 23 miles south of Pensacola Beach. Neither of these projects has received final approvals, with Manna in permitting now and the Velella Epsilon fish farm being delayed by a challenge from conservation groups during permitting.

Comments at public hearings and written comments sent to the Feds on the AOAs were overwhelmingly against fish farms in the Gulf. The public seems to be well aware of the terrible problems that fish farms have caused in other areas, such as pollution from fish waste and feed, escaped fish possibly harming wild fish, the use of antibiotics and anti-fouling chemicals and their impacts on waterways, and more.

The good news is that there are plenty of ways for aquaculture to contribute to a healthy and sustainable food supply. For example, oysters are commonly farmed in many bays all along the Gulf coast, where they feed on plankton that often exists in elevated amounts in the water, helping to purify the water. These types of operations also do not need any supplemental feed. And fish and shrimp can be farmed in ponds on land, where any waste is retained in the pond and not discharged out where it can cause pollution in waterways. Adding plants into these operations can also provide another crop while helping to remove nutrients, simulating the efficiency of natural systems.

The Gulf is sometimes called America’s sea, and this special place is already suffering from a huge annual dead zone and the daily assault of hundreds of active oil and gas drilling rigs, among a slew of impacts. Gambling with the health of the Gulf for industrial finfish farms is not worth the risk.

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