The Department of Commerce and a little-known sub-agency called the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) are pursuing a radical plan to develop fish feedlots two to 200 miles off our oceans’ coasts. This alarming plan would effectively privatize parts of the ocean for large corporations.

The NMFS is promoting privatized ocean sites, feedlots for new finfish species, and a streamlined application and permitting process. Remarkably, the agency admits that getting away from state and local authorities and their environmental regulations is a major reason for moving offshore.

Similar to factory-style poultry and livestock operations, there are mounting concerns that fish feedlots are causing damage to the environment. These feedlots produce fish in crowded cages, requiring antibiotics and pesticides to treat diseases and parasites. Pollution from the feedlots can suffocate marine life, and escapes threaten native fish.

The proposal to extend fish feedlots into the ocean is part of a larger NMFS plan to respond to the Seafood Trade Deficit, also called the Seafood Gap. Americans love seafood. We import far more than we export. Most of what we import are expensive fish, while we export the cheap stuff. Addressing this gap is the agency’s economic rationale for a vast new offshore aquaculture program that could forever change our coastal ecosystems. The NMFS has embarked on a 25-year plan to close the Seafood Gap through aggressive promotion of fish feedlots in U.S. waters.

Following marching orders from the Department of Commerce, the NMFS plan focuses on expanding domestic marine aquaculture. That means promoting fish feedlots through grants, corporate recruitment and reduced regulation. NMFS dismisses the idea that fish feedlots are environmentally damaging – despite rapidly emerging evidence to the contrary – by claiming that any problems that occur can be fixed with new technology.

The offshore proposal comes after a growing number of coastal communities have had a bellyful of fish feedlots and will tolerate no more. State and local governments are shutting down NMFS’ planned expansions through regulation and outright bans. By building the industry outside of state and local jurisdiction in the U.S. Economic Exclusion Zone, two to 200 miles offshore, the NMFS will be the regulatory agency and have a much freer hand.

Here are some of NMFS’ current objectives for offshore development, gleaned from their own documents:

• Promote commercial feedlot exploitation of at least seven new finfish species. This is despite powerful scientific documentation of the damage done by farming salmon.

• Create private ownership rights to ocean feedlot sites. NMFS finds corporations don’t want to risk investing offshore without ownership rights, which presumably will increase their chances of a federal buyout if things go sour.

• Streamline the application and approval process for offshore site development. NMFS will be both promoting the industry and approving the applications.

• Encourage aquaculture industry representatives to seek membership on all NMFS advisory panels, including Fishery Management Councils and Marine Protected Area advisory groups. Won’t that be cozy? NMFS just got done drafting a Code of Conduct for Responsible Aquaculture Development in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone with input from around 40 aquaculture representatives – and none from commercial fishing organizations.

There is still time for the agency to consider a different type of economic development plan. Instead of promoting an environmentally destructive industry, the agency should spend resources to build the market for wholesome, sustainable U.S. wild shrimp and salmon. Sustainable fishing operations for these types of fish help promote and enhance local economies and ecosystems.

The NMFS and the Commerce Department have set out to make an important, probably irrevocable, change in U.S. marine policies, based on specious economic rationale and little public input. The NMFS, a scientific and regulatory agency, has transformed itself into a special-interest advocate. The agency should either protect the ocean or boost industry – attempting to do both simultaneously is a conflict that leads to the foolish rationale associated with the Seafood Gap and a serious violation of the public trust.

Phil Lansing is a resource economist and a senior fellow at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (www.iatp.org), headquartered in Minneapolis.