After a series of safety scares about imported seafood in 2006 and 2007, U.S. consumers are recognizing that more than 80 percent, about 10.7 billion pounds of the seafood they eat, comes from outside the United States. Much of it is imported from Asia and Latin America, regions that have potentially unsafe production practices.
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After a series of safety scares about imported seafood in 2006 and 2007, U.S. consumers are recognizing that more than 80 percent, about 10.7 billion pounds of the seafood they eat, comes from outside the United States. Much of it is imported from Asia and Latin America, regions that have potentially unsafe production practices. Claiming to have discovered the solution to U.S. reliance on imported seafood, the Bush administration is promoting legislation that would allow federal ocean waters to be leased out for industrial fish farming, also known as offshore aquaculture, open water aquaculture, or open ocean aquaculture.1
Offshore aquaculture involves cramming thousands of potentially high,value fish, such as cobia and cod, into large cages in U.S. federal waters — between three1 and 200 miles from shore. These ocean equivalents of land,based factory farms that jam together thousands of pigs, chickens, and cows could threaten the marine environment, human health, wild fish populations, and local fishermen and coastal communities.
Such operations can pollute the surrounding marine environment with fish waste, excess fish feed, and chemicals. Cramped conditions that cause higher stress than in the wild can make farmed fish prone to diseases and parasites, which would likely be treated with antibiotics, pesticides, and other chemicals. Both the diseases and chemicals can be transmitted to wild fish through the open net pens. Wild fish populations can also be harmed when farmed fish escape from their pens and compete with wild fish for resources or interbreed and weaken the wild genetic stock.
Not only is the push for offshore aquaculture reckless, its purported benefits are highly questionable. The administration‚ campaign for ocean fish farming is blind to the current trends in the global seafood trade. The United States exports more than 70 percent of its high,quality wild-caught and farmed seafood, while importing cheaper seafood from countries such as China and Thailand, which have spotty food safety records. Meanwhile, Japan and Europe have high seafood safety standards and receive nearly half of U.S. exports. Following this pattern, if commercial offshore aquaculture were permitted here, producers would most likely export the majority of their fish for high,dollar returns, and U.S. consumption of imported seafood would remain largely unaffected.
Compounding this trend are U.S. companies that export a significant amount of wild-caught seafood to China, have it processed under more lax food safety and labor laws, and shipped back the United States. The equivalent of 15 percent of U.S. wild-caught salmon and 12 percent of cod is exported to China unprocessed and then imported back from China, in processed form. With predictions that this practice will increase and expand to South Korea, the development of offshore aquaculture could end up benefiting processors in Asia, not the United States.
The federal government has created a false sense of urgency in its campaign for offshore aquaculture legislation. Consumers in the United States would be better served through: (1) a program to keep U.S. seafood in the United States, and (2) seafood safety legislation, including an increase in imported seafood inspections, as well as U.S. inspection of foreign seafood production and processing facilities.