Conservationists, Fishermen, and Tribes Sue Over Fish Farming Slated for Federal Waters

Conservationists, Fishermen, and Tribes Sue Over Fish Farming Slated for Federal Waters

Groups Allege the Army Corps Lacks Authority and Failed to Consider Impacts on Endangered Species, Oceans, and fishing and Indigenous Communities

SEATTLE—Center for Food Safety (CFS), on behalf of itself and nine conservation, tribal, and fishing organizations, filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court, Western District of Washington yesterday challenging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ nationwide permit 56, which authorizes industrial finfish aquaculture structures in state and federal ocean waters around the country.  

The Army Corps approved the nationwide permit despite scientific studies and industry in other countries demonstrating that commercial finfish aquaculture poses significant threats to marine ecosystems and endangered whales, salmon, sea turtles, and many other imperiled species, as well as to traditional fishing economies, Tribal Nations’ food security, and public health. The questionable permitting scheme represents the federal government’s latest attempt to do an end-run around the U.S. Congress, which has yet to pass a law authorizing industrial aquaculture in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone. 

“Offshore industrial aquaculture is factory farming of the sea, replicating all the mistakes of land-based factory farms,” said Jenny Loda, staff attorney at CFS. “Worse, the Army Corps lacks authority to take this step without new authority from Congress, which it has not gotten, and the agency completely ignored many of the harms it is supposed to consider and analyze, including harms to endangered species and fishing communities, despite acknowledging these threats.” 

Nationwide permit 56 originated from a Trump-era executive order promoting rapid expansion of industrial marine aquaculture facilities under the guise of addressing pandemic-related food insecurity. The permit will allow the 16 adopting Army Corps districts—in Alaska, California, Oregon, Washington, Florida, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Hawaii, and Virginia—to streamline permitting for this new, ecologically destructive aquaculture industry. 

“Our members include commercial fishermen, family farmers, small-scale aquaculture companies, and conservation groups who all care deeply about protecting our oceans and coastal communities from the massive environmental and economic harms of industrial-scale fish farming,” said James Mitchell of Don’t Cage Our Oceans (DCO2), a plaintiff in the case. “This nationwide permit reeks of cronyism, as the federal government bypasses due diligence and plays favorites. The time is now for our government to value the livelihoods of millions of affected Americans and our marine ecosystems over the profit interests of industrial-scale fish farms and their big agriculture lobbyists.” 

In preparing documents to support nationwide permit 56, the Corps skirted environmental review, including its requirement to thoroughly assess the impacts of industrial aquaculture on marine ecosystems, water quality, public health, fishing communities, and treaty fishing rights. Industrial aquaculture facilities impair water quality through their use of pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and other toxic chemicals, as well as their excess fish feed, dead fish, and fish feces that they directly discharge into surrounding waters. The increasing demand for wild fish as feed for industrial aquaculture jeopardizes the survival of wild fish stocks and disrupts the balance of marine ecosystems. . 

“Salmon are at the center of our diet, culture and provide employment for our people in fishing, guiding and processing,” said Quinault Indian Nation President Guy Capoeman. “With salmon runs declining throughout our ancestral homeland due to climate change and other impacts, we can’t afford the well-known dangers of fish farming.” 

“Unless far better regulated than proposed, open-ocean aquaculture poses a major potential threat to nearby wild fish, especially from pollution, parasites and diseases that can jump to nearby wild fish,” said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, a plaintiff in the case. “We have seen these kinds of operations catastrophically fail many times before, always putting wild fish at serious risk.”   

Contrary to claims that farmed fish production will alleviate pressure on wild fish stocks, industrial aquaculture has exacerbated population declines of wild fish. This will be especially true in offshore aquaculture facilities that farm carnivorous fish, which require a diet often derived from wild-caught fish such as mackerel, herring, menhaden, and anchovies. The industry’s ever-growing demand for fish in feed jeopardizes the survival of wild fish and disrupts the balance of the marine ecosystem. 

The parties represented in the litigation are CFS, Don’t Cage Our Oceans Coalition, Wild Fish Conservancy, Quinault Indian Nation, Los Angeles Waterkeeper, San Diego Coastkeeper, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, Institute for Fisheries Resources / Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, and Recirculating Farms Coalition. All parties are represented by counsel from CFS. 

Additional Quotes from Plaintiffs: 

Emma Helverson of Wild Fish Conservancy: “In granting this far-reaching permit, the Corps failed to comprehensively evaluate even the most obvious and well-established harms that open water commercial net pens pose. This is a reckless and misguided approach to managing species at risk of extinction and directly undermines efforts by local governments, Tribal Nations, and communities throughout the U.S. working tirelessly to protect and restore threatened and endangered species and their habitats.” 

Barak Kamelgard of LA Waterkeeper: “Los Angeles’ coastal waters are on the brink of collapse. Corporatism, shortsightedness, and a conscious disregard for the environmental consequences have pushed this fragile marine ecosystem to its tipping point. We now join this lawsuit out of grave concern that the streamlined general permit and the Corps’ failure to consider the adverse impacts of such aquaculture operations mark the dramatic moment where we irreversibly cross the threshold into catastrophe.” 

Patrick McDonough of San Diego Coastkeeper: “Offshore industrial finfish farms stand to be lucrative for their corporate owners and investors at the devastating expense of our oceans and ecosystems. These densely confined fish populations disrupt the natural behaviors of marine wildlife—attracting predators like our beloved dolphins, sea lions, seals, and sea birds only to maim or kill them with predator deterrent methods when they approach. Further, placing an offshore fish farm close to existing Marine Protected Areas, such as the eleven MPAs that enrich San Diego County’s marine waters, will interfere with the MPAs’ ability to support marine life and bolster local fish stocks.” 

Benjamin Pitterle of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper: “The permitting of offshore finfish aquaculture across huge swaths of the Santa Barbara Channel would represent one of the most potentially detrimental industrial expansions within this region’s marine environment to occur over the last several decades. Comprehensive environmental review of the Army Corps’ aquaculture permitting program is essential to ensure that our marine resources are protected.”   

Marianne Cufone of Recirculating Farms: “Each plan to develop an offshore finfish aquaculture project in the U.S. has met with widespread opposition, so the federal government keeps trying to push forward with as little public awareness and input as possible. This nationwide permit is just another attempt to streamline an unnecessary and unpopular new industrial fish-farming industry.”

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