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The Bush administration has unveiled a plan to promote the construction of giant offshore fish farms in American waters. It says the farms will help reduce a so-called seafood trade deficit of $8 billion a year. Environmental groups say they support the idea of fish farming, but they fear that the giant operations being pushed by the White House will create environmental problems. NPR's John Nielsen reports.
JOHN NIELSEN reporting:
Rich Langen used to fish for wild cod and haddock in the North Atlantic; so did a lot of his friends. Then the fish got scarce, and they all went broke.
Mr. RICH LANGEN (Aquaculture Expert, University of New Hampshire): Right now in New England, we have idle boats, we have underemployed fishermen, we have tremendous economic losses that are happening in coastal communities. So where do we go from here? What can the fishermen do?
NIELSEN: Langen, now an aquaculture expert at the University of New Hampshire, thinks offshore fish farms are the answer to that question. And when Langen speaks of fish farms, he's not speaking of small-scale pens but of blimp-sized, high-tech nets chained to the bottom of the ocean far from shore.
Mr. LANGEN: Taut netting keeps predators out, keeps the fish in. A surface feeder pumps pelletized feed down to the cages. We have cameras in the cages, so that when we feed fish and they're no longer hungry, we could stop the flow of feed and not waste feed and not pollute.
NIELSEN: Langen showed pictures of experimental offshore nets to a press conference in Washington, DC, today. He says it's possible to grow cod, Atlantic halibut, haddock and many other kinds of fish in offshore nets of this sort.
Offshore fish farms started blooming off the coast of Asia and Europe several years ago. Bill Hogarth of the National Marine Fisheries Service says these are the foreign operations that now produce many of the fish the United States ends up having to import every year. Hogarth thinks it's time the United States caught up with the rest of the world.
Mr. BILL HOGARTH (National Marine Fisheries Service): We need to operate fisheries in the US as a business. It is a $60 billion industry for this country.
NIELSEN: At the moment commercial offshore fish farms can't be built in American coastal waters. But the Bush administration has asked Congress to change that by passing legislation that would allow the Commerce Department to start issuing permits for commercial offshore farms. Environmental groups are alarmed by these developments. Dawn Martin, executive director of the non-profit group SeaWeb, says foreign farms have all kinds of environmental side effects.
Ms. DAWN MARTIN (Executive Director, SeaWeb): There's pollutions in the waste. There's tons of use of chemicals and drugs. We don't understand what all the interactions are going to be. There's impact from the escapes of these farm fish on the wild populations. There's--you know, they could transfer all kinds of diseases and parasites.
NIELSEN: Spokesmen for the federal government have promised to write strong environmental protections into their permits. Martin says she doesn't believe them.
Ms. MARTIN: They're basically saying yes to the industry, `Now go forth and produce, and go forth and multiply.' But they're not willing to show their cards and tell us what kinds of requirements are going to be considered when they give them the permits to go forward.
NIELSEN: Martin agrees that there is an urgent need to develop American fish farms, but these are not the kinds of farms she said she had in mind. She suspects that, in the end, the permits that will allow the construction of these offshore fish farms will end up being handed out to big fishing companies and not to beleaguered, small-town fishermen. John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.
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