It’s being hailed as the solution to America’s dependence on imported seafood: industrial-scale fish farms in the open ocean, capable of putting red snapper and grouper on every dinner table in the country.

Still a fledgling industry in the United States, and globally, deepwater marine farming brings small fish born in laboratories to immense underwater cages in the ocean. There they are fed, grown to a marketable size, harvested and brought back to shore for sale.

After more than a decade of research, though, only a handful of operations exist in the United States, largely because of no traction in Congress. But as the nation’s hunger for seafood swells and wild fish stocks continue to decline, the federal government could allow the Gulf of Mexico to be the nation’s proving ground for offshore aquaculture.

At a series of hearings across the Gulf Coast this month, including one Tuesday in Kenner, federal fisheries regulators are considering a program allowing 10-year permits for companies interested in offshore aquaculture. But a coalition of environmental groups and fishing interests has come out stridently against the plan, saying the facilities could disrupt the Gulf’s ecosystem and reduce profits for the declining commercial fishing industry. They want regulators to hold off in favor of more environmental research.

Whatever is decided, researchers and government experts aren’t expecting a surge in applications. Start-up costs are estimated at about $10 million, and it could take years for a company to operate in the black.

But with the United States importing 80 percent of the seafood it consumes, the pressure is coming from high levels of government to find alternatives.

“We are already consuming a tremendous amount of farm-raised fish,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said at a conference on offshore aquaculture earlier this year. “We might as well do it ourselves under our terms, under our conditions, under our standards, and take the market.”

U.S. farms few

Offshore fish farms are just one niche in a burgeoning global aquaculture industry. It’s a broad category, encompassing the catfish and crawfish ponds of the South, the salmon farms in Chile and the shrimp farms in coastal China and Thailand.

Though haute restaurateurs pride themselves on serving pompano and snapper just snagged from the Gulf, in reality much of the seafood in American households was likely farm-raised. By 2015, the United Nations expects half of all seafood consumed worldwide to come from farms. For farm-raised production, the United States has bucked that trend, accounting for 1 percent of farmed seafood worldwide. The vast majority — 70 percent — comes from China.

So why forge ahead on an expensive venture such as offshore aquaculture when already behind?

Proponents say the United States is poised to capture the high end of the market — prized finfish such as grouper and redfish subject to federal regulations after being overharvested. Industry enthusiasts say much of the technology used — from submersible cages with underwater cameras to automated feeding systems — is being developed by engineers in the United States who are then shipping the ideas overseas.

As it stands now, the offshore aquaculture proposal by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council would prevent shrimp farming and would only allow for production of species native to the Gulf.

It would represent the first time offshore aquaculture would be allowed in federal waters, which extend from 3 miles to 200 miles offshore.

“I see it as a way to maintain a fish on the table in the restaurants,” said Harlon Pearce, a Louisiana representative to the Gulf council and a seafood dealer in Kenner. “We don’t have the access to the local Gulf products that we used to.”

Pearce and a coalition of researchers and businessmen recently started a pilot program to study the feasibility of fish farming in the Gulf. With $100,000 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the state, the group will research the species that could be farmed and technologies for raising them.

NOAA officials estimate that in 10 years, offshore aquaculture in the Gulf could produce 298 million pounds of fish, about 20 percent of the region’s current wild catch.

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