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fish farming

The giant prawn menace

Yet another thing to add to your list of Things You Didn’t Realize You Needed To Worry About: Giant prawns in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Asian tiger prawn, a foot-long crustacean with a voracious appetite and a proclivity for disease, has invaded the northern Gulf, threatening prized native species, from crabs and oysters to smaller brown and white shrimp.

Though no one is sure what the ecological impact will be, scientists fear a tiger prawn takeover could knock nature’s balance out of whack and turn a healthy, diverse marine habitat into one dominated by a single invasive species.

“It has the potential to be real ugly,” said Leslie Hartman, Matagorda Bay ecoystem leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “But we just do not know.”

The tiger prawns from the western Pacific – which can grow up to 13 inches long – have been spreading along the Gulf Coast since 2006, but their numbers took off this year. Shrimpers pulled one from Texas waters for the first time in June.

[…]

Some speculate that the Gulf invasion began with an accidental release of farmed prawns in South Carolina in 1988. Another theory: The prawns may have escaped from flooded industrial shrimp ponds in the Caribbean Sea during recent hurricanes.

The threat underscores concerns about large-scale fish farming, also known as aquaculture, in the Gulf. The federal government opened the waters to fish farms in 2009 despite fears from environmental and fishing interests over how to protect wild stocks.

They’re going to do some genetic testing to try to determine where these things came from. What to do about them if they’ve gained a foothold in the ecosystem is less clear. These shrimp do make good eating, and could be another cash crop for shrimpers, but it would be at the expense of existing stock, which isn’t a good trade. Let’s hope something can be done before it gets out of control.

Fish farming approved for the Gulf

Back in January, I noted that there was a proposal to allow a fish farm in the Gulf of Mexico. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was asked for a ruling on it. On Thursday, the deadline for making such a ruling, the NOAA allowed it to happen by not ruling against it on the grounds that there weren’t any regulations prohibiting it.

Officials said the federal agency will develop and implement a national policy for offshore aquaculture, a process that could take nine months. Until then, the farms could open in the Gulf — though as a practical matter it would take much longer to get one up and running.

“Our options in a case like this are very limited,” NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said in a statement. “I believe this is the best approach to the situation.”

[…]

The proposal — intended to help reduce the nation’s reliance on imported seafood — calls for raising millions of pounds of amberjack, red snapper and other species each year in submerged pens three miles to 200 miles off the coast.

But the plan has raised concerns from environmental and fishing interests about how to protect the Gulf’s waters and wild fish stock from disease, pollution and other threats that have troubled fish farms in other countries.

That NOAA allowed fish farms in the Gulf without a ruling troubled opponents.

George Leonard, director of the Ocean Conservancy’s aquaculture program, said the lack of action “created more confusion instead of less” and made it more urgent for Congress to pass fish farming standards.

“Choosing not to make a decision is still making a decision,” Leonard said. “We’re one step closer today to fish farms in the Gulf.”

[…]

The Fishery Management Council predicted that its proposal, as drafted, would produce up to 64 million pounds of seafood each year — equivalent to more than half of the annual commercial catch off the Texas coast.

Jim Balsiger, the NOAA Fisheries Service’s acting administrator, said the council’s plan would fill a regulatory void until a national policy is implemented.

“I expect that there will be little difference between plans,” Balsiger said. “If there are, I have confidence that the Gulf council will adjust.”

We’ll see. I wasn’t terribly impressed with opponents’ arguments in January, so perhaps they can do a better job persuading Congress to be more picky about this sort of thing.

Fish farming in the Gulf?

Not sure what I think about this.

Regional fishery managers have a plan to open the Gulf to the first industrial-scale fish farms in federal waters.

The proposal — intended to help reduce the nation’s reliance on imported seafood — calls for raising millions of pounds of amberjack, red snapper and other Gulf species each year in submerged pens three miles to 200 miles off the coast.

But the plan has raised concerns from environmental and fishing interests about how to protect the Gulf’s wild fish stock and waters from disease, pollution and other threats that have troubled fish farms in other countries.

What’s more, some of the plan’s critics contend that the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which is responsible for the Gulf’s fish population, shouldn’t act before Congress establishes federal regulations for the emerging industry.

“We’re not fundamentally opposed to fish farms,” said George Leonard, director of the Ocean Conservancy’s aquaculture program. “But we need to get it right the first time, and one way of doing it is to have a national debate.”

The time is apparently now, because the plan was approved, though it still has to get past the Commerce Department.

Those against the plan say the large cages and pens that would raise fish far offshore would pollute the oceans with fish waste and chemicals. Farmed fish, which often get heavy doses of antibiotics, can also escape into the wild and interfere with native species.

“We simply do not want this,” said Avery Bates, vice president of the Organized Seafood Association of Alabama. “Do not allow this, I don’t care who’s pushing your buttons … Don’t put us out of business.”

Bates, who represents about 200 commercial fishermen in Alabama, said there was fear that foreign companies would buy permits to farm fish offshore and then sell the fish at reduced prices, undercutting U.S. fishermen.

The United States takes in about $10 billion in seafood imports a year and exports only about $2.7 billion, according to data from the Commerce Department. About 80 percent of all seafood consumed in the United States is imported.

Commercial seafood company owner John Ericsson favors the plan. He said the United States has fallen behind countries such as Greece, Norway and Chile, where offshore farming has taken off.

His said his company, Florida-based BioMarine Technologies Inc., is looking at growing fish in cages that could contain up to 60,000 cobia, also known as king fish in the Northeast, and amberjack. He said it would take about $10 million to set up an offshore fish farm.

“It’s a serious business commitment,” he said.

Besides creating jobs, fish farming is important for the nation’s food security, he said. “Just think if someone was able to wipe out our cows and other land creatures with an anthrax. Where would we get our protein from?” he said.

I have to say, neither of those arguments strike me as particularly compelling. Surely the advocates on either side can do better than that. I think I’m just going to have to read around and see what I can learn about them before I come to any judgment about this. What do you think?