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Sea-farming approval seeks to reduce high U.S. imports

Darryl Brown, left, and his son, Levi, hold some of the Pacific white shrimp they raise at their farm in Fowler, Ind. (Associated Press)
Darryl Brown, left, and his son, Levi, hold some of the Pacific white shrimp they raise at their farm in Fowler, Ind. (Associated Press)

INDIANAPOLIS – The federal government is moving to open up large swaths of coastal waters to fish farming for the first time in an effort to decrease Americans’ dependence on imports and satisfy their growing appetite for seafood.

While federal officials and fish farmers say the new push will create jobs and help allay concerns about importing seafood from countries with weak environmental regulations, conservationists worry that expanding fish farms far offshore will threaten the oceans’ health.

More than four-fifths of the fish, clams, oysters and other seafood Americans ate in 2009 was imported, according to the latest figures from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Those imports have soared in the past decade as U.S. production lagged while other nations ramped up their sea farming. American seafood consumption, meanwhile, grew from just over 4 billion pounds in 1999 to nearly 5 billion pounds in 2009.

To encourage domestic production, NOAA and the Commerce Department issued new policies last month intended to open up federal waters to fish and shellfish farms. Those waters start three miles offshore in most states and extend out to 200 miles. Most U.S. marine fish and shellfish farms are now in state waters close to shore, and none exists in federal waters.

Michael Rubino, who heads NOAA’s aquaculture program, said expanding the area where fish farming is allowed will boost production, create new jobs and help ease concerns that some imported seafood may be tainted with industrial wastes.

“We’d like the U.S. to take responsibility for our consumption decisions, rather than just importing all this food,” Rubino said.

Advances have already opened up the potential for farms far from coastal areas, such as the saltwater shrimp operation Fowler, Ind., grain farmer Darryl Brown opened last year about 600 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. He now raises hundreds of pounds of Pacific white shrimp a month in an old barn that once held horses and cows.

A humid addition to that barn now holds six 6,600-gallon tanks filled with a swirling mix of brownish saltwater and bacteria that break down the crustaceans’ waste, allowing them to thrive.

Brown sells the mature shrimp live for $15 a pound to restaurants, at farmers markets and to visitors to his farm in Fowler. So far, he said he’s sold all he’s raised.

But Brown’s farm, which NOAA says is one of only about a half-dozen of its kind nationwide, is small compared with plans in the works for offshore farms.

Zach Corrigan, acting director of Food & Water Watch’s fish program, said corporate interests are pushing big aquaculture to the detriment of the environment. He said the new policies give short shrift to innovative, lower-impact aquaculture systems and focus on expanding fish-farming into federal waters.

“You’re looking at a policy that’s very much set on promoting the wrong kind of fish-farming,” he said.