In 1973, French scientist Jacques Cousteau said: "With the earth's burgeoning human population to feed, we must turn to the sea with new understanding and new technology. We need to farm the ocean as we farm the land."

At the time, his advice was largely dismissed.

But now, with global seafood demand on the rise, natural resources stretched thin and technology rapidly advancing, the prospect of farming fish in deep water offshore is looking more and more pragmatic.

At a conference on offshore aquaculture in Newport this week, experts gathered to take a closer look at the pros and cons of the controversial industry, which has drawn opposition from environmentalists and commercial fishing groups.

Richard Langan, executive director of the University of New Hampshire's Open Ocean Aquaculture Project and keynote speaker at the conference called offshore aquaculture "a wicked issue" that requires the cooperation of scientists from multiple disciplines and a lot of public education.

"There's a lot of controversy over it and it needed a lot of discussion that never happened," he said.

But he said there is good reason to at least consider the possibility of growing fish offshore.

"The planet is 70 percent ocean," he said. "A remarkable statistic is it only produces 1.8 percent of our food. There's got to be a way we can get more production out of the ocean."

Langan's program has launched a 30-acre demonstration aquaculture facility six miles off the coast of New Hampshire, where it is experimenting with raising halibut, haddock, cod and even steelhead trout in underwater net pens.

He's found the location of offshore facilities is key to successful development because some sites in the ocean will have fewer technological, environmental and social challenges than others. An offshore farm needs to be compatible with other uses in the ocean, he said, it needs to be close to the seafood markets and supporting infrastructure and it probably needs to employ autonomous systems that allow managers to monitor and control the site from shore.

Many unknownsBut there are a lot of unknowns when it comes to farming the open ocean, and a lot of potential pitfalls. In the Pacific Northwest, storms, high winds and big swells will pose design challenges, and the commercial fishing industry is wary of another claim on ocean real estate.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski and the Oregon Ocean Policy Advisory Council have taken a stand against offshore aquaculture development in Oregon, and California has employed a complex regulatory system to effectively block the industry from setting up off its shores.

If an offshore fish farm were to be considered, the environmental impacts of the development would need careful review and disclosure, said Rebecca Goldburg of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Aquaculture farms would carry inherent risks of fish escaping, diseases and parasites spreading to wild fish and pollution from fish food, medication and waste affecting marine ecosystems, she said. They would also require feed sources derived from wild stocks such as anchovies, which could result in a drain on marine resources and a net loss of fish.

Langan said it's important to remember all agricultural methods have some environmental impacts.

"We have to remind ourselves that there are impacts with any form of food production, whether it's land based or not," he said. "Even organic farming has impacts."

More than anything, experts say, the U.S. needs comprehensive legislation to guide the industry through its infancy. A bill proposed last year, the National Offshore Aquaculture Act of 2007, hasn't been passed, and the only other guidance the industry has comes from a collection of agencies that were not designed to regulate offshore aquaculture.

Keeping up with demandIn the U.S. today, 44 percent of the fish consumed comes from aquaculture. The country imports about 80 percent of the seafood it consumes, and about half of the imports come from fish farms.

In fact, said Devin Bartley, aquaculture coordinator for the state of California, the U.S. seafood trade deficit - the amount of exports compared to imports - is second only to oil.

Michael Morrissey, director of the Oregon State University Food Innovation Center, who formerly directed the OSU Seafood Lab in Astoria, said demand for seafood is growing fast as the world population grows wealthier and consumers see the health benefits of eating seafood.

"The big question is whether supply will keep pace with demand," he said. "We'd have to see a tremendous increase in supply to keep up with demand. ... It's unclear to me and many others where that supply will come from."

For the next 10 years, the supply for the U.S. markets will come from overseas, he said. It will be at least that long before the U.S. develops an open-ocean aquaculture industry.

But any growth in the global seafood industry will have to come from offshore facilities, he said.

Based on his research with NOAA, scientist Mike Rust listed the top species to consider raising offshore in the Pacific Northwest. Among other criteria, he considered how fast various species grow, their need for food and their market value, as well as competition from other aquaculture facilities.

At the top of the list were mussels and scallops, neither of which would require feed and both of which grow quickly. They were followed by rockfish and greenlings, wolf fish and lingcod, sablefish, flat fish, pacific cod, halibut and algae.

Astoria City Councilor Peter Roscoe attended the conference and kept an eye out for potential opportunities Astoria might have to participate in the burgeoning industry - perhaps by growing marine plants for biofuels.

"I'm thinking of ways we could get aquaculture out here," he said. "I like the idea of doing something plant-based in Youngs Bay."

Fishermen weigh inDale Beasley, director of the Columbia River Crab Fishermen's Association, also attended the conference and said he's worried about any new ocean development that will cut into fishing grounds.

"It's cumulative," he said. "If you look at Oregon, we have marine reserves and wave energy. Add aquaculture and pretty soon, the ocean real estate will be a very valuable commodity."

Kaety Hildenbrand, an Oregon sea grant fisheries educator, noted there are always proposals to invite fishermen into new ocean-based industries, including wave energy, oil drilling, marine reserves and now aquaculture, but most of the time the industry leaders fail to ask fishermen for their input.

"The ocean seems to be shrinking," she said.

Terry Thompson, a Lincoln County Commissioner and former commercial fisherman, said high wind, big swells, a growing number of low-oxygen "dead zones," a negative political climate, protected sea lions and a lack of open grounds for aquaculture facilities are major hurdles for developing offshore fish farms in the Pacific Northwest.

"Think of all the things you've got to overcome," he said. "The Pacific coast would not be a first pick. ... Almost every part of the ocean is utilized by some part of the fishing industry."

Nick Furman, administrator of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission, said the 433 licensed crab fishermen in Oregon would only play a limited role in the aquaculture industry, just as they would in wave energy or marine reserves.

"I very much doubt any one of those industries could support and employ the number of people we support in our industry," he said.

Langan said both open ocean aquaculture and commercial fishing can co-exist and even benefit from one another.

"Oftentimes, aquaculture is pitted at loggerheads with the fishing industry, but we need to look at them as two sectors of the same industry," he said. "How do we get the maximum value out of both?"

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