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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Privatizing the High Seas

Air Date: Week of

PART 1: The Bush Administration is working up a proposal that would for the first time allow the privatization of parcels of open ocean. Linda Chaves of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration explains it's an effort to increase fish farming farther offshore. Living on Earth also talks with a critic who argues the history of fish farming is replete with environmental problems. Michael Skladany of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy disagrees with the idea of granting lease rights to the ocean.
PART 2: We continue the conversation with Michael Skladany about the need for increased public participation in discussions about ocean fish farming. We also hear from conservationist and oceanographer Sylvia Earle who believes too much has been taken from the sea, and large areas should be protected as no-take zones. Finally, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy will soon issue a long-awaited report on ocean governance. Commission member William Ruckelshaus, a former EPA administrator, says we can have fish farming, oil drilling and conservation at the same time, with the right rules.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

For millennia the high seas have been regarded as the common heritage of all people. In recent years, nations have expanded their claims to the oceans beyond 12 miles to 200. And now the Bush Administration is looking at granting businesses the exclusive right to territories on the ocean for fish farming. Aquaculture visionaries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration look out at the open ocean and they see an endless blue pasture, prime for farming cod or salmon or shrimp. The perfect place to anchor miles of undersea cages teeming with fish.

NOAA wants to quintuple the amount of fish farming in American waters and argues that fish farmers will be more bankable if they have property rights, and that in turn will encourage more aquaculture. Critics are skeptical of this privatization of the seas, and we’ll check in with one of them in a moment. But first we turn to Linda Chavez, the chief of aquaculture for NOAA. Welcome Linda.

CHAVEZ: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: We’re going to talk some about fish farming. And I have to tell you this – that over the years, as I began to understand how fisheries have declined, I got very excited when I was able to buy farmed fish, and particularly farmed salmon because it’s supposed to be so good for you with all the omega-3s. And then I hear that there’s a problem with farmed fish, that there are pollution problems and that the fish itself may have some toxins in it. So help me sort this out. Is fish farming a good idea?

CHAVEZ: Yes, fish farming is definitely a good idea. In fact, about a third of global seafood production today comes from fish farming, and we expect that it’s going to continue to increase. And with regard to your reference to, or question about whether or not it’s healthy – yes it is absolutely healthy for you. The most recent flurry of activity around the presence of PCBs in farmed salmon has been somewhat misleading. There are PCBs in a lot of different food sources. And what’s really most important are that the levels that have been found are considerably lower than what the FDA action level is, and in fact there are actually PCBs in other types of food at much higher levels than what is found in salmon.

CURWOOD: Now, as I understand it, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has plans to vastly expand fish farming. Why?

CHAVEZ: Well, we can’t even begin to meet the seafood demand in the United States. We currently import over 75 percent of what we consume. We’ve calculated that by 2025, we are going to be needing four million metric tons more seafood than we eat today. And the only place that can come from is fish farming. The industry is going to continue to develop, and we might as well have some of the economic benefits of that expansion accrue to the United States. We also believe that it can be done in an environmentally responsible manner, and we definitely have a role in making sure that happens.

CURWOOD: Tell me more about the plan to expand fish farming here. Where would you put these fish farms?

CHAVEZ: Well, fish farms can be put, and currently are being put, in coastal areas. But we have authority in the EEZ, which is the area beyond state waters out to 200 miles. And there are great opportunities for putting fish farms out in that area. By doing that you get away from fragile coastal areas. You also reduce the competition with other coastal uses. And you also find yourself in deeper waters, frequently cleaner waters, without some of the agricultural runoff that you have in coastal areas, and you also have more current. And any impact on the environment will be minimized in that offshore area.

And I know a lot of people are concerned about there being many, many farms all over the EEZ, but in fact you really don’t need to use that much space because of the high production rates that you can accomplish in fish farms. And you’re really not talking about a great surface area.

CURWOOD: So how do you deal with the question, then, of having this private farm out in, well, this is really public territory?

CHAVEZ: Well, the precedent has been set that we do have oil platforms out in the EEZ, and the ocean floor, the seabed, is leased to oil companies to put in place oil platforms. So the precedent has been set, and leasing would provide those people involved with some assurance that they would be able to operate for a specified period of time. If you want to establish a fish farm, and you need to go to the bank, you need to be able to make some assurance that you’re going to be able to operate in a given area for a period of years that will allow you to grow your fish out to harvestable size.

CURWOOD: What originally gave rise to this idea? Is it the change in technology? People from the fish farming industry come to the government ask for this? How did this ball get rolling?

CHAVEZ: Well, I think that a number of things have happened. It’s become increasingly difficult to get permits in the in-shore environment. You have a lot of people who don’t want to look out their living rooms at fish farms right off their, you know, expensive waterfront property. And so it’s become increasingly difficult to find areas to use in the in-shore environment.

At the same time, there have been a lot of technological advancements that allow us to move off-shore to areas where we can withstand high waves, storms, and things of that nature. The industry – some people have seen that this is the place to go to be able to expand.

CURWOOD: In Maine, not far from where I am on the East Coast, in recent years there have been difficulties with infections, with disease in the fish that are being farmed. How would deep sea fish farming affect those risks?

CHAVEZ: Well, I think that there has been a lot of progress in the area of disease control as well. We are now using much fewer antibiotics in fish farming. We are developing technology to rapidly vaccinate many, many fish. We’re also learning more about vaccinating fish against disease. So, yes there have been some problems in the past, but I think that we can control those.

CURWOOD: What about the legal framework for this? If I wanted to go out now and put up one of these farms encouraged by the interest in this, what would I have to do?

CHAVEZ: Well, right now you would have to check with the Army Corp of Engineers, you would have to go to the Environmental Protection Agency, you would have to come to the National Marine Fisheries Service. There are quite a few different permits right now that would have to be obtained.

CURWOOD: And how would you like to change this?

CHAVEZ: Well, I think that what the industry has asked for is they would like to be able to go to one entity that would coordinate the entire permit application process to make it faster, hopefully less costly. They would like to see a program that is focused on aquaculture, that understands aquaculture.

CURWOOD: Linda, in British Columbia there’s been a lot of flap about fish farming there. And one of the complaints is that some of the farmed fish, which aren’t native to the area, escape. And then they crowd out, they out-compete the local, wild salmon. What’s to prevent escapes from these cages so far off shore? How would they be monitored?

CHAVEZ: Well, one of the ways that you could monitor escapes – or one of the ways you could monitor – is to tag fish to determine whether or not, when you find one, whether or not it is actually an escape. I think it’s important that we minimize the possibility for escapes, and I think that we’ve come a long way in the design of net pens and net cages, so that there’s a lot of less of that going on.

CURWOOD: Now you’ve said that the oil business has set a precedent for this kind of leasing. I’m wondering how much the problem of what to do with unproductive oil rigs might be driving this proposal to have these open ocean fish farms, fish ranches?

CHAVEZ: Well, I don’t think that what to do with non-productive oil platforms is driving this at all. Although they do provide a great opportunity…

CURWOOD: Opportunity for?

CHAVEZ: Well, they provide an opportunity, one, because there’s an area to work on. And there’s also something there that’s already anchored into the water that is a stable platform, if you will. I could envision the development of hatcheries on an oil rig, where you would have sea water and you could grow your juvenile fish right there, and then stock them into a net cage immediately adjacent to the platform.

CURWOOD: What’s the most promising aspect of this? What’s the thing that’s most exciting about it?

CHAVEZ: Well, I think the future potential for development of an aquaculture industry in the United States, so that we can rely on products being developed in the United States, so that we can have some economic benefits accrue to the United States. I think there’s a great future for aquaculture in the EEZ.

CURWOOD: I’ve been speaking with Linda Chavez, aquaculture coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Thanks so much.

CHAVEZ: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: And now for a different view on granting rights to the ocean, we turn to Michael Skladany of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a Minneapolis group that focuses on agriculture and the environment. Hello, sir.

SKLADANY: Hi, how’s everything?

CURWOOD: Now, I’m wondering, how does this proposal to grant private property rights in the open ocean around the United States – how does that sound to your ears?

SKLADANY: It sounds like a real, real harbinger of a lot of problems. There’s a lot of questions and they’re not being addressed.

CURWOOD: What’s wrong, though, with eliminating the haphazardness that we seem to have now with ocean fish farming? Wouldn’t it be a good idea to have clear rules that are enforceable?

SKLADANY: Yes, but I think too that there is a lot of uncertainty here. Look at what has happened in coastal salmon farming up in British Columbia, as well as other parts of the world including Chile, Norway, Scotland, so forth. There’s been a whole host of environmental problems. Fish escapes – they escape from the net pens, they get out into the streams, they’re basically invasive species.

Number two would be the amount of drug use that takes place in those net pens, antibiotics. The waste that emanates from the fish pens, as well. These are all unknown factors. And I think, more importantly, you have an area in the ocean where it’s not very fertile. Now, what’s going to happen when you start concentrating nutrient inputs into that particular area?

CURWOOD: What do you mean by nutrient inputs?

SKLADANY: Fish feed, the concentration of biological matter.

CURWOOD: You mean fish poop?

SKLADANY: Yeah, fish poop. And fish feed, too, as well, because some of that fish feed is uneaten. I know they say that they’re very efficient in that regard. That has a lot of unknown ramifications to it, and I don’t think the issue has been adequately addressed. So the environmental problems are definitely there. They’re not going to go away. What about attracting mammals, attracting sharks and so forth? It seems as though the people who are advocating pushing this proposition forward aren’t addressing those questions in any really responsible sense.

CURWOOD: The people, though, who are writing this proposal say they’re aware of these concerns. They understand that there’s a problem with too much feed being fed, they’re concerned also about fecal pollution, and that they’re going to take steps to safeguard the ocean in this respect.

SKLADANY: They said the same thing about salmon farming and I just offered that as an example. It’s replete with all kinds of environmental effects that weren’t anticipated, and I think we’re seeing the same scenario unfold here, too.

CURWOOD: Okay, we need to take a break right now. We'll be back in just a moment with more from Michael Skladany, and preview a major federal assessment of the oceans. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: The Legendary Pink Dots “Green Gang” THE CRUSHED VELVET APOCALYPSE (Caroline – 1993)]

[MUSIC: Bukkene Bruse “Steinstolen” THE STONE CHAIR (Northside Records – 1999)]

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood, and I’m speaking with Michael Skladany of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade policy. We’re talking about the Bush administration’s call for a major increase in fish farms, and plans to put them out in the open ocean.

Now Michael, as I understand it, you don’t feel the public has been adequately involved in the process. Tell me, what kind of information is missing, and how would you like to see the process change?

SKLADANY: I think what is happening here is that the advocates of this type of fish farming are moving ahead irresponsibly without any caution to some of the wider societal issues, namely who has the right to use the ocean for private property purposes? That needs to be more and better defined. This is our ocean. This is our common heritage. This is what’s at stake.

CURWOOD: What are you worried about? What are you afraid of here in terms of the public trust?

SKLADANY: The selling off of our oceanic heritage, the privatization of the continental shelf for benefits garnered by just a few people.

CURWOOD: Now, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says, look, we need to have a lot more room to farm fish. The fact is that the demand for seafood is going up, it’s not being caught. These type of operations are a way to get the kind of fish that people want, and will pay good money for. What’s wrong with that argument in your view?

SKLADANY: Number one, the seafood trade deficit has been bantered about for decades now. We have a significant seafood trade deficit, what’s the best solution to that? And we’re not talking about, you know, feeding the world here. We’re talking about raising luxury-end items. Really that doesn’t dent the seafood trade deficit all that much.

I think there’s other forms of aquaculture which could be a very good practice. Couldn’t other forms of aquaculture, for example inland, small-scale fish farms be a better response to reduce our trade deficit, as it’s being advocated? No, I think what we have here basically is growth for profit that’s going to benefit a few people, all right, and not the public.

CURWOOD: I’m just wondering if there is any configuration of deep ocean fish farming that you think would make sense to you?

SKLADANY: At this point, no, I don’t see it happening. I think, again, if you follow aquaculture development on this planet for the last 30 years, like I have, you see areas in need. For example, inland, for example, in the tropics in the developing part of the world. You see these glitzy coastal high-luxury items being raised for export. That has accelerated with shrimp and salmon since the mid-80s. Open ocean aquaculture is a continuation of this export, profit-driven kind of industry.

Where the problems still exist and still remain in the world are in those inland areas, okay? So we need to be real clear about whether we’re feeding the world or we’re doing something else. And in this case we’re selling fish to make lots of money for a few individuals. And this has unfortunately hurt the legacy of aquaculture, which of course can be a very, very sustainable, beneficial activity for society as a whole. But recently that has not been the case.

CURWOOD: Michael Skladany is with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a Minneapolis group that focuses on agriculture and the environment. Thanks so much for taking this time with me today.

SKLADANY: Thank you very much.

CURWOOD: It’s been a year of unusual attention to the world’s oceans, and this focus will soon peak, when a panel of experts chosen by the White House reveals its long-awaited appraisal of U.S. ocean policy.

Conservationists hope this high-level commission will call for roping off large swaths of ocean into no-take zones. They also yearn for an end to fishing gear that scours the ocean floor. These hopes reflect their view of the ocean as now being depleted of much of its riches.

Oceanographer and writer Sylvia Earle shares this view. She is a former chief scientist at NOAA who has set a number of diving records. We caught up with her at a meeting of ocean conservationists in Baja California, and she was eager to recount the changes she’s witnessed underwater over the years.

EARLE: Imagine going wading in the Florida Keys, just up to your knees, and looking out and seeing pink conchs crawling around like little bulldozers – by the hundreds. Now, you know, it’s illegal to take pink conch in Florida because there are so few left. It’s really a joy when you find one. Nassau grouper -- when I was a kid, they were so common you’d go out and they were like puppies out there looking at you. Come play! It was almost the feeling that you got when you could see them and their big sad eyes looking out at you and almost inviting you to go out and fool around in the ocean with them.

And then when I began diving, which also took place in the 50s, I could see the abundance of large fish. The relative abundance of sea turtles – they were sold in the markets in the 50s, even in the 60s. That’s stopped, but we do take other species that the ocean simply cannot provide on a sustainable basis. Not on a large-scale basis. It’s alright maybe to go out and catch a duck or a goose, a wild one, or quail, now and then from a wild population and get away with it. But we don’t find these wild creatures in supermarkets and in restaurants across the nation, across the world.

But we do expect to go to supermarkets and restaurants and find ocean wildlife. And we couldn’t do this when I was a kid. We didn’t expect to have wild fish or shrimp at every meal. It was a sometimes treat, a now and then thing. Today when you think about the number of places that you go expecting to be able to order shrimp, expect to be able to find lobster – never mind that the lobster might have come from half a world away. We in the United States are consuming lobsters from the Galapagos Islands, causing big problems in the Galapagos.

I don’t begrudge the fishermen for trying to make a living. But we are the ones who are providing the market that inspires them to go out and take from their own back yard and ship to distant markets. We’re so disconnected from the source that we don’t see the cause and effect relationships. The problems are market driven, and we drive the market by insisting that there be shrimp at every restaurant that we go to. And we just say, ‘I love shrimp, mmm…’ If you knew the real cost of shrimp you might think twice.

CURWOOD: Conservationists like Sylvia Earle question why fishermen and fishing companies have the primary say in deciding how much sea life is taken from the ocean.

EARLE: You could say I have a vested interest in these creatures. Why should you with a net, who want to take, have any more right to take than I who want to have them out there alive? Do those who see the dead fish, dead creature value, should they have a greater voice than those who say ‘I think that those creatures are more important to human kind as a part of what makes the world function?’

CURWOOD: Sylvia Earle, explorer-in-residence for the National Geographic Society, has logged more than 6000 hours underwater.

When the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy issues its report, it is expected to lead to a shake up in the way we manage the oceans. But conservationists like Sylvia Earle may be disappointed. While the commission will address the use of destructive fishing gear and the importance of marine reserves, its report will also reflect a view of the ocean as being under-utilized for food and energy needs. Thus, it will likely endorse leasing the ocean for fish farms. And advocates of more oil and gas drilling offshore may find the report encouraging in the face of moratoria imposed by a number of states.

With us now is one of the commission members appointed by President Bush, a man who was the very first chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, under President Nixon, and again under President Reagan, William Ruckelshaus. Nice to have you back on the program Bill.

RUCKELSHAUS: Thank you. Nice to be here.

CURWOOD: Now, over the past year some reputable scientists have told us that it seems possible, perhaps even likely, that only 10 percent of the fish that were once in the oceans now remain. You were on the commission when that study was published. What were your thoughts at the time?

RUCKELSHAUS: Well, that wasn’t news to us. You know, some people will contest that number of 10 percent – say it’s 20 percent, or 25 percent. That‘s still an incredible decline and a very serious problem. Our commission’s reaction is we’ve got to do something about this. Our government, the governments of the world, have got to stop that decline.

CURWOOD: So what do you think you’ll end up recommending to address this shocking reality that we have lost, well, between how you count, 75 to 90 percent of our fish?

RUCKELSHAUS: Bear in mind we’re not talking about all fisheries. There are some fisheries that are healthy. In Alaska, for instance, the way they manage the salmon up there and other ground fish have kept them quite healthy. And the system they use up there is essentially the one that we’re recommending be adopted throughout the country. And that is that you separate out the scientific process – where you determine how many fish can be caught in any one year – you separate that process from the process of how that should be allocated, who should be allowed to catch that pie that the scientists define. That separation doesn’t currently exist, and we’re recommending that that separation be made very clear.

CURWOOD: Now, this review that you’ve done with the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, this is huge, a really comprehensive review. I would say that it’s the closest scrutiny that U.S. policy towards the oceans has gotten since the creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which was put under the Department of Commerce. And here’s my question: how good of a fit is this for our premier ocean agency? How effective is it to have the folks who are studying the oceans be in the Department of Commerce which is about business, after all?

RUCKELSHAUS: Well, it’s true. What most people don’t realize is that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is about 65 percent of the budget of the Commerce Department. So moving that out of the Commerce Department and making a separate agency out of it has to be, first of all, endorsed by the administration and then supported by the Congress. All of which, even if it were to happen, would take a significant amount of time.

What we’re suggesting is there are steps the president, the administration, can take immediately without additional legislation. The Congressional process is lengthy enough that we’re concerned – and the problem is immediate enough -- that we need immediate action to deal with it.

CURWOOD: Let’s talk about the National Ocean’s Council recommendation that I gather that your commission will have. I understand that this is going to be in the White House, which would make it overseen by an assistant to the president. Why do you want to do this, why would it help?

RUCKELSHAUS: We are recommending the creation of a National Ocean Council, to be headed, as you said, by an assistant to the president. It will be made up of the major cabinet or agency heads that have significant responsibilities for the ocean. It will have a coordinating function to make sure that when we have a problem in the ocean there will be a mechanism that will ensure a much greater level of coordination than now exists. Salmon out in the northwest is a good example, where the salmon have been listed as endangered. There are several federal agencies as well as state agencies that have responsibility for the management of those fish. There is no coordinating mechanism, either at the national level or the state level.

CURWOOD: Now what happens to existing bay keepers under this arrangement? I’m thinking of the California Coastal Commission, which has been pretty active in the area of managing the coastal oceans there on the West Coast. How will they interact with this?

RUCKELSHAUS: Well, that’s a very good question, and that’s why we are recommending that with the creation of the council we take a two to five year period working with the states and local governments to determine what kinds of regional structures organized along ecosystem lines make sense. And where a state has an active coastal zone program, like they do in California, incorporating that program into the regional structure has got to be, in very large measure, a determination led by the states.

CURWOOD: Now, they’re not just people who fish, or people who run fish farms, or scientists, or environmental advocates here. There are also representatives from the mineral explorations and oil drilling contractors on the U.S. Oceans Commission. Now, what sort of things do they want to see preserved or guaranteed in any kind of new policy?

RUCKELSHAUS: These members, by the way, were very productive and objective and helpful members of our commission. And they are living under a regime now that has existed for many years. And what they point out is that we are currently managing off-shore energy sources, for instance, through state moratoria. That in most states in the country, any additional opening of land for oil or gas production is prohibited – except where it has already been permitted.

For instance, if you go to the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Texas and Louisiana there are some 4,000 wells. They go out several hundred miles. And there’s a line right down the middle of the Gulf of Mexico that if you go east of that line there’s virtually no production. And it’s because the states have declared moratoria on any additional production of oil and gas.

We simply point that out in our commission, and don’t come to any specific recommendations about it. Except it’s pretty clear, I think, to most of us who were there, and not just those who are involved in drilling, that this is not the most rational way in the world to make these kinds of judgements. To declare moratoria in the states which currently have no production simply because the public is so adamantly opposed to any additional production, particularly where they have no experience with it.

CURWOOD: You think that we should be doing more drilling offshore, it sounds like.

RUCKELSHAUS: No, no [LAUGHS]. I have not said that. All I did was describe how we’re currently doing it. And how we’re currently doing it is very hard to make sense out of.

CURWOOD: Yeah, I know you didn’t say that, but it sounds like you think that maybe we should be doing some more drilling.

RUCKELSHAUS: [LAUGHS] Well, I haven’t said it. In my view, what this country needs to do is to have a much more extensive national dialogue about it before there’s ever going to be an understanding of what the pros and cons of it are. And then a rational judgement can be made about what should be done next.

CURWOOD: Bill, I’m struck by this announcement from the administration that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is looking to quintuple the amount of fish farming in the ocean off American shores over these next 20 years. How can you do that and have large marine protected areas and take care of all the concerns that your commission is raising?

RUCKELSHAUS: The commission is going to recommend that a regime be created to control this so that we get the advantages of fish farming, which are considerable, potentially considerable, and at the same time avoid the environmental or adverse health effects. All of these things are legitimate concerns, but in my view you can address them. But you need a regulatory regime to do it. I’m sorry, even as a Republican I’m suggesting we need rules. You can’t just leave this to the whim of the individual operator without having the public doubt the viability of this approach, or tempting people to cut costs by doing things in an environmentally unsustainable way. In my view we can continue to pursue this opportunity for the country as well as the world, but we need to do it carefully and thoughtfully, and paying attention to all these potentials for adverse effects.

CURWOOD: William Ruckelshaus was twice chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, under presidents Nixon and Reagan, and serves on the United States Commission on Ocean Policy, which will soon be issuing the most comprehensive federal look at ocean policy in more than 30 years. Thanks so much for taking this time with me today.




United States Commission on Ocean Policy


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