Lawsuits hold back fish farming in Gulf of Mexico

Erich Luening
October 28, 2016
By Erich Luening

It'll be sometime before fish farmers can start growing product in Gulf of Mexico waters as various fishermen's associations, environmental groups and other stakeholders have filed a lawsuit challenging the federal government's plan to permit mariculture in offshore waters.

         NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which regulates "fishing" and "harvesting" of marine species in federal waters under the Magnuson--Stevens Act (MSA),Is facing a lawsuit. The plaintiffs argue that NOAA exceeded its authority to regulate fishing by including offshore aquaculture as "fishing" activity.

         NOAA’s decision to open the Gulf up for “harmful fish farming, or aquaculture,” was based the "culmination of an extended rulemaking and convoluted procedural history that began about twelve years ago," the Center for Food Safety, Gulf Restoration Network and a dozen other green groups claimed in federal court.

     They argued aquaculture will threaten Gulf fish and the health of the environment.

     Finalized in January 2016, the new aquaculture regulations will allow up to 20 industrial facilities and collectively 64 million pounds of fish to be produced each year in giant net cages in the Gulf of Mexico.

         A NOAA spokesperson told Aquaculture North America (ANA) that the agency doesn't comment on current litigation and pointed to NOAA documents that have established its regulatory authority by agency counsel's interpretation of MSA.

         In a 2009 letter on the issue, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council felt it closed the debate as NOAA had cited legal backing for its interpretation of the MSA back in the 1990s. According to the MSA, NOAA has regulatory and stewardship authority for fisheries, marine sanctuaries, marine mammals, threatened and endangered species, and habitat conservation. NOAA also engages in consultations with other agencies that issue permits for aquaculture activities in state and federal waters.

         NOAA may issue permits authorizing aquaculture activities under the MSA and the National Marine Sanctuaries Act. NOAA may also issue permits authorizing an aquaculture operation’s interactions with, or the incidental take by an aquaculture operation of species protected under the Endangered Species Act  and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Lawsuit stymies permits

Whatever happens in the courts, the uncertainty around the regulatory framework has already kept businesses from applying for permits to farm fish in federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

         "We shouldn’t be doing this on an industrial scale until we have better information,” said Marianne Cufone, a professor of environmental law at Loyola Law School in New Orleans, in an article in the The Guardian in the United Kingdom. “It’s very possible the Gulf of Mexico will be altered forever if we move forward.”

         But proponents argue the time is now to move forward with sustainable aquaculture in federal waters.

         “It’s a wonderful opportunity for the Gulf of Mexico, but it’s been a long time coming,” Joe Hendrix, president of Seafish Mariculture in Houston, Texas, an aquaculture consulting group, said in The Guardian article. “It’s difficult to implement these things because of a lot of ignorant people who have misplaced concerns.”

         Hendrix was on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council when the council approved and then submitted its offshore aquaculture fisheries management plan to NOAA.

Erich Luening

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