Unregulated fish farms harm marine ecosystems

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Americas
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Photo: A farm in the ocean for the cultivation of aquatic species. Source: www.magrama.gob.es
Think of a “factory farm” that produces beef for fast food restaurants: thousands of animals are squeezed together into claustrophobic, unsanitary pens. The farmers inject the herd with a cocktail of medications and growth hormones. Diseases abound, and powerful antibiotics are used to keep the animals alive. Waste products and chemicals often run off into the surrounding waterways and seep into the water table.
 
Now imagine the same scenario, but replace the cows with fish, and the pens with “net cages” submerged in the ocean. Like land-based factory farms, these “aquaculture” facilities can seriously damage the surrounding environment. AIDA is working throughout the Americas to strengthen the laws that govern industrial fish farms.
 
When we think of commercial fishing, we often think of casting a net and hauling in a huge load of fresh catch. But fishing as we know it is becoming a thing of the past: dwindling wild fish populations and an ever-growing demand for seafood have made it harder and harder for the fishing industry to stay afloat using traditional methods. Aquaculture has emerged as the way of the future and it is big business. Between 1990 and 2004, salmon fish farming in Chile grew by 825%, and almost half of all the seafood consumed in the United States is now grown on fish farms.
 
In the context of such explosive growth, strict oversight is needed to protect coastal areas from irreparable harm. The excess food and waste produced by thousands of fish in close quarters can sink to the ocean floor and suffocate delicate ecosystems. Pathogens also spread quickly among commercial fish stock and infect natural populations.
 
To make matters worse, it can be hard to contain the fish themselves. Storms, human error, and the forced intrusions of hungry local predators can lead to massive escapes of farmed fish. When they disperse into the natural ecosystem, they breed with local populations and dilute the genetic purity of the species. If the cultivated fish aren’t native to the surrounding environment, they become an “invasive species” and threaten to destabilize the entire ecosystem.
 
Aquaculture is a largely unregulated industry, and many of these problems can be corrected with responsible oversight. AIDA has developed a comprehensive set of best-practices for governments to follow when developing environmental regulations for aquaculture facilities. To date, we have advised authorities on aquaculture laws in Mexico, Costa Rica, Belize, Honduras, and Jamaica, among others.
 
AIDA has also succeeded in strengthening oversight through legal actions. In 2007, AIDA sued to halt the construction of a yellow-fin tuna facility in Costa Rica because the potential impacts on wildlife had not been properly assessed. The Constitutional Court sided with AIDA and barred construction from moving forward (in Spanish) without a legitimate environmental impact assessment, which the company has yet to produce.
 
In 2011 the environmental authority (Secretaría Técnica Nacional, SETENA) shelved the project. In a similar case in 2008, AIDA argued that a proposal to cultivate an aggressive, non-native fish species in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez posed a significant risk to native marine populations. The Mexican authorities agreed, and denied the license for the project.
 
Unfortunately, the problem is much greater than any individual case, and aquaculture activities continue to threaten fragile ecosystems. To protect our environmental resources and treasures while safeguarding food security in the Americas, we must design smart, common-sense policies to regulate aquaculture. In the coming months and years, AIDA will vigorously strive to rein in irresponsible fish farms and promote sustainable aquaculture.
 
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AttachmentSize
Constitutional judment Tuna Farm Golfito S.A. (in Spanish)/May 9, 2007709.92 KB
Coadvisory Tuna Farm (in Spanish)311.76 KB
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