Global Agriculture

Groups Urge Court to Strike Down Army Corps’ Decision Greenlighting Ocean Fish Farming

15 November 2023, Washington: Center for Food Safety (CFS) has filed arguments seeking to revoke the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ approval of nationwide permit 56, which authorizes industrial finfish aquaculture structures in ocean waters around the country. CFS represents a coalition of conservation, tribal, and fishing organizations, including the Quinault Indian Nation and Don’t Cage Our Oceans Coalition.

Nationwide permit 56 would allow construction of industrial aquaculture facilities in Alaska, California, Oregon, Washington, Florida, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Hawaii, and Virginia. Industrial aquaculture, also known as fish farming, involves placing net pens and cages in the open ocean to produce massive quantities of finfish such as salmon, trout, and bass, threatening marine ecosystems and endangered whales, salmon, sea turtles, and many other imperiled species, as well as traditional fishing economies, Tribal Nations’ food security, and public health.

“The Army Corps admits that offshore industrial aquaculture poses serious risks to water quality, wildlife, and fisheries, yet went full steam ahead with moving this novel industry forward,” said Jenny Loda, staff attorney at CFS and counsel for the plaintiffs. “What’s more, Congress has not even authorized any federal agency to take this unprecedented step, opening the door to factory farming of the sea, replicating the same problems of land-based factory farms. We are asking the court to set aside this unlawful decision.”

The CFS filing details how nationwide permit 56 violates Congress’s constitutional authority over federal lands. Despite the introduction of numerous bills, Congress has not passed a law allowing offshore industrial aquaculture in federal waters, nor protecting our federal ocean waters from its unique impacts.

“Open ocean aquaculture is a disaster waiting to happen,” said Tyler Lobdell of Food and Water Watch, a plaintiff in the case. “These factory farms at sea flush everything from pathogens to parasites into the surrounding waters, threatening native ecosystems, wild fisheries, and the public. The Army Corps cannot dismiss these clear and obvious threats — the agency must reverse its plans to fast track development of these dangerous monstrosities in our oceans before it’s too late.”

“Nationwide permit 56 flies in the face of many states’ efforts to protect coastlines and marine life,” pointed out Emma Helverson, Executive Director of Wild Fish Conservancy, a plaintiff in the case. “Every U.S. state on the entire Pacific coast has banned or eliminated commercial open water net pens from state marine waters to prevent the devastating harm this industry poses to water quality, wild salmon, and the greater health of our marine ecosystems. In granting this nationwide permit to expand this industry in federal waters, the Army Corps is ignoring these clear and obvious risks and undermining the efforts of communities throughout the nation working tirelessly to protect their public waters.”

In its filing, CFS also details the Corps’ failure to adequately assess impacts on water quality resulting from the facilities’ use of pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and other toxic chemicals, as well as the excess fish feed, dead fish, and fish feces that is directly discharged into surrounding waters. And CFS points to the Corps’ failure to assess nationwide permit 56’s impacts on endangered species such as humpback whales, leatherback sea turtles, and giant manta rays, as required under the Endangered Species Act.

“We are a salmon people. Salmon are at the center of our diet and culture and provide employment for our people in fishing, guiding and processing,” said Quinault Indian Nation President Guy Capoeman, a plaintiff in the case. “Siting a fish farm in our fishing grounds would do irreparable harm to the Quinault people by limiting access to our traditional fishing area and for impacts to our wild and hatchery fish from pollution, pests and disease, and escaped farmed fish interbreeding. Allowing development of fish farms in our fishing grounds is an affront to our people.”

“Not only is it clear that the Corps lacks the authority to authorize such a permit, but also that the Corps did not sufficiently evaluate the impacts along LA’s coast, including near several Marine Protected Areas, ignoring potential negative impacts that pose substantial dangers to our sensitive marine ecosystems, and risk biodiversity loss and habitat degradation,” said Barak Kamelgard, of LA Waterkeeper, another plaintiff in the case.

The lawsuit seeks to have the court declare the nationwide permit unlawful and invalidate the permit. Other groups in the coalition challenging the Army Corps’ permitting of industrial aquaculture include Los Angeles Waterkeeper, San Diego Coastkeeper, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen, and Recirculating Farms Coalition.

Other comments from plaintiffs:

Phillip Musegaas, Executive Director and Coastkeeper, San Diego Coastkeeper:

“Nationwide Permit 56 stands to devastate California’s meticulously planned network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). This network includes eleven MPAs that enrich San Diego County’s marine waters, and is the second largest science-based network in the world. These MPAs were established to protect unique ecologically critical areas and significant scientific and cultural resources, designed to provide connectivity between ecosystems. In fact, recent research clearly demonstrates that our MPA network is a success, with increased biodiversity and healthy fish populations. Industrial open-ocean fish farms sited anywhere near these MPAs will disrupt the behavior patterns of marine species, as well as introduce diseases, parasites, pathogens, and the existential threat of genetic contamination of wild fish populations. Nationwide Permit 56 should be abandoned entirely.”

Ted Morton, Executive Director of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper:

“The permitting of offshore finfish aquaculture across significant areas of the Santa Barbara Channel would be one of the most potentially detrimental industrial expansions to occur within this region’s marine environment in recent decades. A comprehensive environmental review of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ aquaculture permitting program is essential to ensure that marine resources are protected.”

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