If you’ve ever driven north on Interstate 5 and passed through the section with industrial feedlots for cattle, you know the smell. It’s unforgettable. Besides the obvious odor, though, there are serious environmental, animal welfare and human health issues associated with these large-scale meat production facilities.

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Those issues are similar to environmental concerns about offshore aquaculture – or factory fish farms in the ocean.

In Ry Rivard’s Jan. 19 story, “State Probing Experimental Hubbs Fish Breeding Program That’s Spawned Deformities, Mixed Results,” he called attention to the prevalence of disease and deformity in hatchery-raised white seabass in a smaller project run by Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute in Agua Hedionda Lagoon. Rivard shared internal email correspondence from a California Department of Fish and Wildlife pathologist, who indicated that mismanagement and negligence are at least partly to blame in the state-funded, $28 million research project.

Yet, Hubbs-SeaWorld is the same organization that’s partnering with a private equity firm to build a massive commercial offshore finfish farm in federal waters about four miles off Ocean Beach. It could produce yearly 11 million pounds of yellowtail jack, white seabass and striped bass – plus the associated fecal, feed, antibiotics waste, predator and wildlife interruptions and commercial ship traffic that accompanies factory fish farms.

Though Rivard’s story investigates a much smaller-scale fish-breeding Hubbs-SeaWorld operation, the nature of the findings of disease and deformity brings to light issues with management, oversight and the lack of comprehensive federal regulations of industrial fish production. Coupled with the abundance of scientific literature documenting the significant negative environmental impacts of offshore fish farms, these new findings add considerable weight to existing concerns.

The proposed factory fish farm will use a series of open-water cages tethered to the ocean floor. In this type of offshore aquaculture, caged fish escaping is common and expected. When escaped fish are diseased, as we’ve seen in Hubbs-SeaWorld’s white seabass hatchery, those diseases and other parasites could potentially spread to, and threaten, wild fish populations.

The project presents a number of other serious, long-term risks, including the regular discharge of concentrated fish feces, feed and antibiotics, which can create imbalances and algae blooms and lead to low-oxygen dead-zones; similar projects have caused unnatural groupings of wild fish and marine mammals seeking opportunities to eat excess food, changing natural behaviors of local fish populations and of the sea lions, birds and other animals; migrating whales in California have been injured by shipping associated with marine industrial activities, which the proposed project will increase and marine mammals and birds have been killed by devices and equipment related to aquaculture activity.

The proposed factory fish farm is the first in the nation of its kind in federal waters, and there exists a regulatory “black hole” in U.S. law surrounding offshore aquaculture. Only the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency require permits – respectively, for navigational obstruction and for discharge of waste such as fish feces. Unfortunately, the existing level of environmental oversight for these permits is woefully inadequate.

The lack of federal laws also leaves a gap in the regulation of the use of public property by a private entity. In other instances, private entities bid on leases, pay rents and royalties, acquire property rights and are subject to environmental regulations. But the Hubbs-SeaWorld factory fish farm would occupy and pollute public resources – for free. This scenario is not dissimilar from an industrial pig farm operating in the Cleveland National Forest without a lease and overarching regulations and with only permits to build a fence and discharge pig waste.

The state of California, by contrast, has adopted a comprehensive law governing aquaculture, the Sustainable Oceans Act. The law allows for leases and limited rights to California’s public trust resources while requiring the identification, analysis and mitigation of environmental impacts. California’s law is robust. Unfortunately for the environment, Hubbs-SeaWorld located its project just outside the three-mile zone that falls under California’s jurisdiction.

Finally, the proposed fish farm would profoundly impact the future of Pure Water, the wastewater recycling program that will produce a drought-proof water supply and avoid billions in upgrades to our Point Loma Wastewater Treatment plant. As part of that program, the city of San Diego must continue aggressive monitoring and reporting on the discharge of partially treated wastewater into our ocean. But the location of the fish project would be immediately over, and in close proximity to, sites required in this monitoring plan. The fish farm’s regular activities would jeopardize the permit and agreement on which Pure Water and Point Loma’s continued discharges are legally based.

San Diego Coastkeeper recently submitted comments to the Environmental Protection Agency outlining these concerns.

There are still opportunities for truly sustainable fisheries. To achieve that goal, however, we as a community must invest in protecting and restoring wild fish populations that produce healthy food and support fishing businesses in balance with good water quality and a healthy ecosystem. We want – and need – fishable water.

Matt O’Malley is San Diego Coastkeeper’s policy director. O’Malley’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.


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