ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The Gulf of Mexico is now open for fish farming. For the first time in the U.S., companies can apply to set up floating cages and raise fish in federal waters. The goal is to offset foreign imports, which are hard to regulate. Tegan Wendland of member station WWNO in New Orleans reports opening up the Gulf won't be cheap, and it could pose environmental problems.
TEGAN WENDLAND, BYLINE: Harlon Pearce owns Harlon's Louisiana Fish, which sells local fish to restaurants and grocery stores across the South. On a recent afternoon, his refrigerated warehouse in Kenner, just outside of New Orleans, was full of them.
HARLON PEARCE: You've got 30,000 pounds of fish right here, or more. Yellowfin tuna, offshore. And if you look on the table back here now, I've got black drum. You're going to have sheephead. There's mahi right here.
WENDLAND: But it doesn't always look this way. Pearce, who's on the board of the Gulf Seafood Institute, says he freezes a lot of his fish to meet continuous demand. Ultimately, he always runs out. He wants to sell nationwide to big chains like Red Lobster, but -
PEARCE: We never have enough fish to supply the markets. Never.
WENDLAND: That's true for a couple of reasons. The seafood industry in the Gulf still hasn't bounced back from the 2010 BP oil spill. But it's always fluctuated due to hurricanes and pollution. Pierce says fish farming, or aquaculture, could solve that. The rest of the world's ready doing it. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, 90 percent of fish we eat in the U.S. is imported. About half of that comes from aquaculture. NOAA administrator Kathryn Sullivan says the goal is to reduce our dependence on foreign imports and improve food security.
KATHRYN SULLIVAN: This starts with the Gulf, but actually also opens the door for other regions to follow suit. We see it as another important step in building the resiliency of our oceans and our fishing communities.
WENDLAND: This is how it'll work. NOAA will issue permits to companies that want to set up shop in federal waters, which is generally three miles offshore, allowing them to run farms for 10 years. They can use giant floating pens and can only raise fish that are native to the area, so red drum and cobia in the Gulf, but not salmon or tilapia. Some people think that's not such a great idea. Marianne Cufone is adjunct professor at the environmental law clinic at Loyola University. She says it's going to hurt struggling fishermen.
MARIANNE CUFONE: These systems will take up real space in the ocean and displace fishermen. And in fact, there are going to be buffer zones around these facilities where fishermen can't go.
WENDLAND: She says there's an environmental risk as well.
CUFONE: Especially escapes of fish. There have been millions of fish that have escaped from these pens all over the world and causing problems. Not just genetic problems of mixing with wild fish, but things like spreading diseases between captive fish and wild fish.
WENDLAND: Fish food and waste could also fall out of the pens and affect other marine life. NOAA says it took all of this into account by considering thousands of public comments and enforcing environmental safeguards like constantly monitoring the cages. But the safeguards could be pointless if people can't make money on it. Rusty Gaude is a fisheries expert with Louisiana State University. He says it's not going to be quick or easy to raise fish in the ocean. NOAA is setting a lot of environment of rules. And then there are hurricanes.
RUSTY GAUDE: These initial efforts may go through some rather painful growing pains. But eventually, the world and the Gulf of Mexico and Louisiana will see aquaculture here in the Gulf of Mexico.
WENDLAND: NOAA and other federal agencies say the first permits could be approved in two years. For NPR News, I'm Tegan Wendland in New Orleans.
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