High Seas Drifters

| 8th July 2004
The reckless deep-sea gold rush that could turn the North American continental shelf into one giant factory-style fish farm

Gangs of workers dressed head to toe in hazard suits pick their way along the rocky banks of the Laerdalselva river in Norway. Pesticide dispensers in hand, they release showers of toxic rotenone. In eddies and shallows further downstream, scores of hook-jawed salmon – fish that were once vital and bristling with silver vigour – gasp forlornly at the water’s surface, gulping down air as they shiver out lingering deaths.

The Laerdalselva is just one of at least 41 Norwegian rivers that have been colonised by the parasite gyrodactylus salaris over the last 25 years. The parasite was transported into these rivers by millions of farmed salmon that breached their cages and fled upstream to reproduce. Latching onto wild fish and causing them infection-prone bleeding wounds and sores, the tiny organism rapidly decimates the native salmon in any stream it invades. The cure? Annihilate every living thing in the river.

Far away from Norway’s arctic torrents, in the tropical waters off Hawaii, other species of fish are being farmed. But off Ewa Beach, Oahu, the site of the submerged fish cages of Cates International, the scene is very different: it all seems tranquil and benign.

A diver moves slowly through underwater twilight towards a huge grey form the size of a circus tent, pauses momentarily as he reaches its edge, tugs at a seam, then disappears – engulfed in the mesh folds of the structure. Inside rotates a pulsating merry-go-round: a vortex of fish, swirling in an endless clockwise motion. Then a tube above the water’s surface begins to gush small brown pellets, and within a couple of seconds the gyrating mass of fish morphs into a blurred frenzy of feeding bodies.

The new open-ocean aquaculture being practised off Hawaii seems replete with sci-fi promise. The fish being raised are moi – fast-growing, voraciously hungry creatures prized for their succulent white flesh. Cates International’s venture is at the cutting edge of what may rapidly become one of the largest industries in US waters and a primary source for much of the Western world’s seafood. Open-ocean aquaculture’s proponents claim they can vastly expand the capacity for producing in-demand marine fish, and do so in a sustainable manner; they say that by moving into deeper waters they can avoid the catalogue of environmental catastrophes that has beset salmon aquaculture.

For the past 10 years the federal agency charged with managing the US’s territorial waters, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has embarked on a course of research and development aimed at bringing this utopian vision to fruition. In conjunction with universities in coastal states and private investors looking to cash in on the country’s insatiable appetite for seafood, the agency has sought to prove the viability of open-ocean aquaculture, garner private investment and government funding for its activities, and secure its dominion over America’s oceans. This campaign has culminated in a National Open Ocean Aquaculture Bill, which will go before Congress later this year.


The oft-repeated logic for these developments goes something like this. As the world’s population grows exponentially there is an ever increasing demand for fish protein that cannot be met by fishing fleets. Around 75 per cent of global fisheries are either at capacity or in decline. Seafood represents the US’s second greatest trade deficit – currently running to nearly $10 billion a year, but continuing to grow as the country’s taste for seafood escalates. New initiatives are needed to satisfy the US Department of Commerce’s policy goal of a fivefold increase in the value of domestic aquaculture by the year 2025. Practising aquaculture in the open ocean, it is claimed, will eliminate all of the environmental difficulties inherent in salmon farming, which takes place close to shore; the strong currents and massive volumes of water far out at sea disperse and dilute any pollutants emanating from open-ocean fish farms.

Taken at face value, this seems to make sense. But a more measured examination of the situation is likely to reveal entirely contrary conclusions – and altogether different motivations for developing the oceans.


Open-ocean aquaculture is an extension of the principle of salmon farming. Take high-market-value fish, put them in cages in the sea at huge densities, and feed them on pellets composed of oil and meal from smaller fish until they are large enough to be sold. The end result is a cheap, standardised product, available to consumers all year-round. And therein lies the problem.

Using small fish, such as anchovies and sardines, to create larger more expensive ones is incredibly wasteful. Around four pounds of edible fish are required to make one pound of salmon. Less conventional species now being farmed offshore like moi and red snapper consume even less efficiently. Moreover, the bulk of the fodder fish come from the seas off developing countries like Chile, where they support both the local human population and every other creature on the marine food chain above them. Open-ocean aquaculture is not about ‘feeding the world’, then. Every farm-raised salmon, cod or tuna eaten in the Northern hemisphere represents a fourfold reduction in the fish protein available to the people of the South.

And the idea that offshore currents will disperse nutrients from fish faeces so fully as to make them disappear is little more than wishful thinking. NOAA-funded demonstration projects show no changes in nutrient levels close to offshore fish cages. However, the cages in the agency’s trials hold only a few thousand fish, not the millions that will eventually be required to turn a profit. Cumulatively, the effects of several large farms close together could be devastating. Remember, this is industrial aquaculture, a process driven by the same economics that govern terrestrial factory farms.

On land, individual factory farms are clustered together in large numbers. The US state of North Carolina, for example, is home to some 10 million pigs, which generate 52,000 tons of sewage daily. Disposing of their untreated waste has become a critical problem, and contamination of groundwater by slurry is endemic. This leaking liquid manure repeatedly kills millions of fish, while outbreaks of the bacteria pfiesteria piscicida [itals], which multiplies in the farms’ nutrient-rich runoff, have killed millions more and caused memory loss and other severe cognitive difficulties to local people.

As the number of fish species raised in offshore cages expands, numerous virulent new diseases are likely to emerge. It is this aspect of open-ocean aquaculture that Dr Neil Frazer of the University of Hawaii finds most disturbing. He explains that in the wild diseased fish are rapidly picked off by predators, which keeps levels of parasites and bacteria in balance. Placing vast numbers of fish close together in cages where there are no predators, shatters this equilibrium. Pathogens multiply quickly in this environment and are transmitted to wild fish through the water they share. Advocates of fish farming fail to accept the existence of this problem, citing ‘a lack of scientific evidence’. Frazer’s dry response to this stonewalling is: ‘Science is to governments as perfume is to whores.’

Very little research has been conducted on the transfer of disease from farmed to wild fish. ‘By far the largest number of references,’ says Frazer, ‘are denials from paid sea-cage industry representatives and from government officials with administrative loyalty to aquaculture. ‘There is no evidence of transmission of disease from farm to wild fish’, they inevitably say. Yet all scientists are familiar with the principle that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

‘It seems to me that the game being played is the same game that tobacco companies played for 50 years: if you don’t look for a connection between tobacco use and lung cancer, you are not going to find one. Similarly, if you don’t give researchers the money to study disease transmission from sea-cage fish to farmed fish, you are not going to find evidence for that either. And there is absolutely no government research money flowing to anyone wanting to investigate the topic.’ To fill this gap, Frazer began conducting his own research voluntarily, building models based on well-founded epidemiological principles. His findings are bleak and project a scenario in which, he says, ‘we will eventually lose one wild fish to disease for every farmed fish’.

The open-ocean aquaculture lobby has also chosen to ignore an equally uncomfortable set of legal and social questions. Under international law, coastal nations maintain jurisdiction for a distance of 200 miles over the waters adjoining them. These tracts of ocean are known as Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). The EEZ surrounding the US is controlled by federal government, but, in accordance with an old legal principle known as the public trust doctrine, its resources are deemed to be ‘held in trust’ for the benefit of the American people. This effectively precludes signing its waters and seabed over to private users.

The US EEZ is a contested area. Previous attempts at exploiting it, such as a 1992 proposal to construct an enormous 47-square-mile salmon farm 30 miles from the coast of New Hampshire, failed because of disagreements between the large number of government agencies claiming jurisdiction over the affected area. The NOAA’s Open Ocean Aquaculture Bill is designed to consolidate the agency’s power by giving it sole control over aquaculture in the EEZ, and enshrining in law its ‘right’ to lease out the US’s vast oceanic property to industry. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to realise that once this precedent is set, a wealth of other industries with equally disastrous environmental records, such as mining and waste disposal, will be able to gain access to other abundant resources on the North American continental shelf.

Jeremy Brown, an ex-pat Cornish fisherman turned US environmental activist, has followed the situation closely. He sees the NOAA’s efforts to open up the continental shelf to corporate exploitation as directly analogous to the lucrative sell-off of the electromagnetic spectrum to telecommunications companies that took place in the 1990s. Quoting former British prime minister Harold Macmillan, Brown likens the move to ‘flogging off the family silver to settle the tradesman’s bill’. He says: ‘The EEZ is prime real estate, holding vast natural resources. It is completely out of sight, and 99 per cent of the public don’t even know it exists.’ With the US government struggling under the weight of a huge deficit, finding ways to start a gold rush on public property that no one knows about must seem pretty attractive.

While non-Americans are by now very well acquainted with the Bush administration’s contempt for international law and environmental protocols such as the Kyoto agreement, most are less aware of the way it deals with domestic agreements. Over the last three and a half years, it has initiated the rolling back of more than 200 major environmental laws, a number that far exceeds the greatest excesses of any previous US government. This rabidly anti-environmental agenda has been implemented under a cloak of secrecy, deception and breathtakingly disingenuous PR, and been facilitated by the wholesale intimidation of dissenting scientists and bureaucrats. It has bolstered the ends of corporate hegemony in an almost inconceivably shameless manner. Open-ocean aquaculture has evolved in a way that fits this paradigm perfectly.

Though funded by public money, the process of developing open-ocean aquaculture has been conducted with an astonishingly arrogant degree of secrecy. The NOAA’s Code of Conduct for Responsible Aquaculture Development in the US EEZ, the key public document on which all the relevant legislative efforts have been based, is virtually impossible to obtain – despite its having been in circulation for four years. NOAA personnel are evasive or hostile when asked even basic questions, and a number of ‘public’ consultative hearings received virtually no publicity and were extremely difficult to gain access to. As with all US federal agencies charged with managing industry, the NOAA has fallen into a state of regulatory paralysis: it serves almost exclusively the corporate power it was originally set up to control.

Big oil has also played a role in the development of open-ocean aquaculture. Plans are afoot in California to raise a number of fish species, including tuna and halibut, in cages underneath a decommissioned oil platform. The plans are an ingenious attempt by ChevronTexaco to avoid the multi-million dollar clean-up costs associated with removing a redundant oil rig; the corporation hopes to disguise its reneging on its contractual obligations with a veneer of green virtue.

This kind of green-washing has become endemic. The Bush administration’s ‘Healthy Forests Initiative’, for instance, has opened up millions of acres of old-growth forest to logging firms. Its ‘Clear Skies Program’ will create 525 per cent more mercury, 225 per cent more sulphur-dioxide and 68 per cent more nitrogen-oxide pollution than would have been allowable under the US’s existing Clean Air Act. Likewise, offshore aquaculture is sold under the mantra of ‘sustainability’, when it is clearly anything but ‘sustainable’ (probably the most misused word in the English language).

Open-ocean aquaculture, then, is not really about some desperate need for seafood; it is about power. It is an ill-conceived and unnecessary technological fix presented as an essential cure-all. It is the creation of a small group of bureaucrats and scientists who have unilaterally decided that it is desirable and must be pursued at all costs. If you read between the lines and look to the future, it’s also about a world where we don’t need living oceans.

Dr Alexandra Morton is a biologist studying the crash in wild salmon populations in the vicinity of fish farms in British Columbia, Canada. She says: ‘Farmed salmon don’t need rivers. If you can produce and sell salmon that don’t need a river, you can mine, log, divert, pollute and destroy watersheds. For a politician who wants to say 'yes' to industry, the farmed salmon is a gift: you can have your salmon product, and wreck your rivers too.’ As it is now for salmon aquaculture, so will it be for open-ocean aquaculture.

For more information, visit: www.iatp.org/fish

This article first appeared in the Ecologist July 2004


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