5 Reasons Why High Seas Fish Farming Is a Scary Proposition

Imagine these, in the middle of the open sea, with 40-foot swells. What could possilbly go wrong? (Photo: Getty Images)

Mar 31, 2011· 1 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

It looks like the first permit to allow open-ocean fish farming in the U.S. is about to be granted to a Hawaii-based company, Kona Blue Water Farms. If that permit goes through, several more companies are in line to grow fish in waters surrounding the 50th state.

The announcement by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has raised alarms with consumer protection groups, in particular Washington, D.C.-based Food & Water Watch.

While fish farming near shores is common around the world, mass producing fish in floating pens in open waters raises problems ranging from pollution to the spreading of disease.

According to Food & Water Watch, the NOAA is classifying the new aquaculture as a form of fishing so that the NOAA “can claim it has authority to issue a permit for this new ‘gear type.’ ... It’s outrageous that NOAA is equating … a dangerous, large-scale polluting method of farming fish with fishing.”

NOAA insists that all forms of aquaculture need to be on the table. Americans consume 5 billion pounds of seafood a year, 84 percent of which is imported, resulting in a trade deficit of around $9 billion.

Food & Water Watch contends that demand is not reason enough to build “factory farms of the sea.” A $5 billion fish-farming industry would create untreated sewage equivalent to that produced by a metropolis twice the size of New York City.

“So far the industry has failed to demonstrate that ocean fish farming is environmentally sustainable, technically possible or financially viable,” warns Food & Water Watch. “Most existing farms require large amounts of funding from the government.”

Five reasons for going slow on open ocean farming:

1. Water pollution. Fish waste and excess food falls to the ocean floor, and antibiotics and a variety of chemicals used to grow fish (think cattle feed lots or mass-produced chickens …) leech into the sea.

2. Escape. Even the best-designed pens will be damaged by storms, run the risk of equipment and human failures, and be hammered by predators (sharks, turtles). Farmed fish escaping into the wild will potentially spread disease, breed with wild populations, and derail natural ecosystems.

3. The amount of wild fish used as fish food. Anywhere from two to six pounds of wild fish is needed to raise one pound of farmed fish. With stocks of most wild fish declining, how long will that calculation be workable?

4. Who owns the ocean anyway? All sorts of conflicts of interest pertain to where ocean fish farms should be located, including existing fishing grounds, shipping lanes, recreational fishermen, military sites, areas of national security concern, and protected and fragile at-risk areas.

5. Trade realities. The U.S. will never be able to grow enough fish cheaply enough to stem the imbalance between domestic fish and imported. Today, about 70 percent of the fish caught and grown in the U.S. is exported—while we import cheaper, lower quality seafood. So most of the fish grown at sea would probably be headed for other markets anyway.