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Historically, the management of our marine environment has been narrowly focused on specific activities without a coordinated plan to both use and protect the ocean. The Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force, created by President Barack Obama last year, and reports from the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and the Pew Oceans Commission have recommended taking a comprehensive approach to planning for the multiple uses of the ocean environment, among which is the emerging activity of offshore aquaculture.
As the chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife, I believe that any development of offshore aquaculture should take place in a sustainable way that balances environmental, social and economic concerns.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines offshore aquaculture as all activities involved in the propagation and rearing of marine species in the U.S. exclusive economic zone.
Global wild fisheries production stopped growing during the mid-1980s, yet the global aquaculture sector has maintained an average annual growth rate of 8.7 percent over the past 40 years.
In 2006, global aquaculture production was estimated at $78.8 billion. U.S. aquaculture pales in comparison with an estimated value of only $1 billion annually. Of the total U.S. aquaculture production, only about 20 percent is in marine species and virtually none is produced offshore.
While offshore aquaculture has been promoted as a means to reduce the U.S. seafood trade deficit, it also has the potential to harm the marine environment and native fish populations. When done in haste and without proper planning, offshore aquaculture could pose many threats, including water pollution from waste products and chemicals, disease transmission, escaped farmed species and an increase in the use of wild forage fish for aquaculture feeds. Poorly sited offshore aquaculture could also conflict with other ocean uses such as energy development, commercial and recreational fishing, and tourism.
While the Obama administration is developing a national policy for offshore aquaculture, the U.S. still lacks a comprehensive, national offshore aquaculture statutory and regulatory framework to provide the certainty and environmental safeguards necessary to sustainably guide this use.
A number of federal agencies are authorized under various federal laws to govern activities that occur in the exclusive economic zone, but within this patchwork of existing authorities, there is no national framework to permit and regulate offshore aquaculture. Nor is there a framework for assessing offshore aquaculture relative to other uses of the marine environment. While the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force has recommended a more comprehensive approach, NOAA is currently moving forward with developing and promoting offshore aquaculture with neither a regulatory framework nor a coastal and marine spatial planning process in place.
Last year, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council voted to approve a plan to issue permits and regulate offshore aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico. Many Members of Congress called on the secretary of Commerce to reject the plan because regional councils were not the appropriate bodies to regulate offshore aquaculture and a national regulatory framework was preferable to the piecemeal regional approach authorized by the Gulf of Mexico aquaculture plan. Despite our efforts, on Sept. 3, 2009, the secretary allowed the plan to enter into effect, setting a dangerous precedent whereby offshore aquaculture will be regulated on a case-by-case basis with inconsistent applications of regulations and standards depending on the region.
This patchwork approach perpetuates fragmented regulation of offshore aquaculture in the U.S. that could result in significant and potentially irreversible environmental and economic damages.
Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), my subcommittee colleague, introduced the National Sustainable Offshore Aquaculture Act of 2009 (H.R. 4363), which would require NOAA to establish such a national regulatory framework for offshore aquaculture development. The legislation would ensure environmental protection for sensitive marine areas while reducing conflicts among competing uses of the marine environment. The legislation would also authorize new funds for research to provide the crucial feedback that we need for adaptive, environmentally sound management of this new ocean use.
If offshore aquaculture is going to be developed as a tool to meet the increasing consumer demand for seafood, reduce stress on wild fish populations and create jobs here at home, this legislation will ensure that it is done in a manner that protects the integrity of our fragile ocean ecosystems.
It is my hope that the bill will provide a starting point for a much-needed and overdue discussion about how to address the challenges and opportunities inherent in the advent of offshore aquaculture in our nations marine environment. Without a comprehensive plan, I firmly believe that the further promotion and development of offshore aquaculture should not occur.
Del. Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam) is the chairwoman of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife.