If you’re among those who think Louisiana should diversify its economy, then you’ll certainly want to learn more about the brand new industry a little-known federal regulatory board may be about to scale, gut and fillet just for the Bayou State. It’s known as offshore aquaculture or, as it concerns Louisiana, fish farming in the Gulf of Mexico. A sub-committee of the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council approved the plan earlier today, and the entire council is expected to take its own final vote this week as well.
The idea of farm-raising fish in huge cages or pens has sparked a debate that has been raging for six years — especially in Louisiana. Environmentalists are worried that antibiotics and other chemicals will negatively impact the surrounding natural resources. Commercial fishermen argue that the federal government is creating unfair competition at the same time the domestic seafood industry is screaming for help.
The U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the gulf council, has touted the benefits of offshore aquaculture in the past, issuing reports that predict a better trade deficit, new jobs, more economic development and less pressure on wild fish populations. In short, the feds like offshore fishing as a new industry.
Tom Wheatley, regional representative for the Marine Fish Conservation Network, a nonprofit advocacy group, expects high drama in coming days, but notes that the debate has a few legal questions that could end up in the courts. The gulf council has decided to act on offshore fish farming now because it believes the proposed plan fits neatly into the Magnuson Steven Act, a congressional measure. Wheatley, among others, disagrees with the interpretation. “The purpose of the law is to manage and conserve wild fisheries, not to promote offshore aquaculture production,” he says.
Public hearings on the proposed plan are being held this week at the Hollywood Casino in Bay St. Louis, Miss. On Monday, The (Biloxi-Gulfport) Sun Herald asked the gulf council to postpone its decision until a later time so that more public discussion can be had. For more on the council and the proposed plan, go to gulfcouncil.org.