I've gotta hand it to the Bushies. If there is one arena in which this band of generally-less-than-a-full -deckers shows a glimmer of brilliance, it is in propping up bottom lines for big oil and gas. I mean, really: Could you imagine more ways for the administration to shell out the goods to an industry already making record profits? Kudos to them, they've found yet another handout vehicle. And this one takes an unsuspecting form: Fish.
As Marc reported in his review of Taras Grescoe's "Bottomfeeder," Americans have a relentless appetite for seafood. Like our pork, beef, and poultry industries, our fisheries are moving toward the intensive CAFO style of production. U.S. consumption of seafood grew by 25% a person in the last two decades, and a full 80% of the fish we eat is now imported from other countries. An ever-growing share of that is farmed; world-wide, production of farmed salmon grew by 17,000% between 1980 and 2000, according to a report from the Monterey Bay Aquarium [pdf].
To most, that statistic might be a cause for concern, or at least, you know, minor pause. For the Bush Administration, it's an opportunity to cry national security -- oh, and to shell out more subsidies to big oil while they're at it. How can such magic be made? Over the last decade, the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service (MMS) has pushed to allow off-shore oil rigs to be refashioned as "artificial reefs" on which fish can make their homes. So we don't end up blindsided by their terminology, I should emphasize that the reefs would be large decaying oil rigs.
And now, the MMS is considering going ahead with a version of the program, this one called "rigs to fish farms," despite congressional opposition -- balance of powers be damned.
Federal regulations mandate that when an oil company decides to stop using an offshore rig, it must remove the platform and associated equipment within a year. Doing so, according to some sources, can cost up to $5 million. Under the MMS' proposed "rigs-to-reef" program, companies would be able to leave the submerged part of the rig in the ocean to be used in the construction of an artificial reef. Estimated cost: $800,000. And here's the kicker: Once the rig has become a reef, oil companies would wash their hands of any future liability associated with it.
The rigs-to-reef program was successfully beat back by a coalition of organizations, but the MMS recently stepped up with a new proposal: Allow fish farms to be built off of the underwater portion of the rigs.
That proposal got a bit of play last week when 12 representatives sent a letter to the MMS calling the agency out for being way out of its league. The reps, both Dems and Republicans, accused the MMS of overstepping the bounds of its expertise and its legal authority. MMS, as its name might imply, is supposed to deal with mineral-based resources. As we've come to learn in the past few weeks, its staff also have experience dealing in a lot of other things -- but fish farming isn't one of them. If MMS goes forward with its rigs-to-fish farms proposal, it will suddenly find itself responsible for aquaculture operations and their many environmental impacts: the leaching of hormones and antibiotics used on fish from cages into the open ocean, the massive amount of concentrated waste that these operations create, and the fish who escape during storms or predator attacks and then compete with wild fish stocks.
The truth is, the MMS proposal isn't just a subsidy for big oil and gas, though it's certainly that. It's also a subsidy for the companies pushing open-ocean aquaculture as the solution to U.S. seafood demand. Constructing an off-shore fish farm is a pricey venture indeed, but it's much less expensive if you can hook it up to an existing oil rig. Dealing with the environmental impacts of fish farming is much less expensive when you don't have to deal with them, but instead can let them wash away with the tide. Because aquaculture operations don't have to pay these costs, the final product will be much cheaper -- and it will likely put more sustainable fisheries out of business. It will also be worse for us. According to a study in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries (cited here), shrimp and fish living near oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico were found to have mercury levels that were off the charts.
What's the solution? Well, we can all eat less fish, for one, so that demand can be met without compromising the sustainability of the world's fisheries. Knowing where our fish comes from and choosing carefully is also important. But the real challenge is to keep congressional attention on the proper regulation of fish farms -- ensuring that off-shore aquaculture stays off the rigs and out of the hands of the Minerals Management Service.
Photo of an off-shore oil rig courtesy of iStockphoto.