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Black cod farming alarms fishermen

Juneau Empire State News, Tuesday July 11, 2003

By Elizabeth Bluemink

When Juneau fisherman Paula Terrel looks ahead, she sees the potential for the Pacific Ocean's successful black cod commercial fisheries to go the way of the salmon: from community-based fishing to industrial farming. "It's going to be devastating,'' said Terrel, who fishes for black cod in Southeast's offshore waters. To her chagrin, both the U.S. and Canadian governments are working to spur black cod and other offshore fish farming. Terrel's fears about how fish farming could change her livelihood - and that of nearly 1,000 other U.S. black cod fishermen - could be realized soon.

Over the border in British Columbia, Gidon Minkoff of Sablefin Hatcheries Ltd. is preparing his first harvest of 30,000 young black cod, called sablefish outside of Alaska, for their journey to offshore net pens in the ocean this year. The only thing standing in Minkoff's way is a court petition by the Canadian Sablefish Association, a commercial fisherman's group, to temporarily halt the transfer of juvenile black cod to British Columbia fish farms until more scientific studies are completed. A Canadian federal judge will hear the petition Monday morning. More than 40 licenses already have been approved in British Columbia for fish farmers to expand beyond salmon and shellfish, and most of them are for black cod.

The Canadian Sablefish Association accuses the provincial and federal governments of illegally circumventing environmental assessments required under Canadian law.

Minkoff says he has been scrutinized by regulators every step of the way. Regulators did not return the Empire's phone calls. Minkoff also said fishermen can't provide for future needs. "They are dinosaurs and the world changes,'' Minkoff said.

Canadian fishermen, such as Eric Wickham, worry they will lose their $30 million annual commercial black cod harvest due to environmental pollution and an inability to compete with larger farm outputs. Wickham, executive director of the Canadian Sablefish Association, also worries that like farmed salmon, farmed cod could introduce diseases and parasites to their wild counterparts, which live in British Columbia's inlets and fjords in their juvenile stage.

Limited production of farmed black cod began about five years ago in Canada. Though it is a few steps behind, the U.S. National Oceans and Atmospheric Administration is conducting research on offshore black cod aquaculture. No commercial hatcheries or farms have been developed yet, but under the Bush administration, NOAA developed a policy favoring the introduction of offshore aquaculture in federally owned waters, defined as 3 to 200 miles from the shoreline.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said last week she is troubled about farm-raised black cod. "There are a number of environmental questions that haven't been fully answered as to how they could affect the natural resource,'' she said in a written response to an Empire query.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game also is scrutinizing the NOAA policy supporting offshore aquaculture, which has not yet resulted in legislation. "The state is working on its comments to NOAA on the policy at this time,'' said Nancy Long, a spokeswoman for the agency.

Meanwhile, Terrel worries that Alaskans remain blind to the possible danger to their commercial fishery, which is even more lucrative than the Canadians'. The U.S. harvest in Alaska and Washington is more than four times the landed value of British Columbia's harvest, according to a recent report by the Canadian Sablefish Association. "When I talked to Alaska legislators, there was not one who supported (farm-raised black cod), but most of them didn't realize it was happening,'' Terrel said.

The market for all black cod harvesting is Japan and Hong Kong, where that fishery crashed some years ago. Black cod spawn in the deep ocean and migrate to shore when they are juveniles. Until 1998, Canadians were unable to hatch them successfully. The researchers' major obstacle has been the delicacy of black cod eggs, causing low survival and production rates. But Minkoff said he and others have begun to surmount those difficulties. Minkoff says he raises his black cod larvae - no bigger than an eyelash - in complete darkness. "We give them the feeling that they are somewhere deep down in the abysses of the ocean,'' he said.

The Sablefin Hatcheries operation on Saltspring Island grows plankton to feed the black cod until they reach 10 grams in weight in four months. Minkoff's first crop has been ready to sell for several weeks now, he said.

Once Canadian farm harvests increase to competitive levels with Alaska fishermen, "it means less jobs, per pound of fish,'' said Bob Alverson, of the Seattle-based Fishing Vessel Owners Association, which lobbies against farmed black cod and offshore aquaculture. Alverson guesses it would take three to five years before Canadian black cod farming could have a major impact on the U.S. industry, because of the current low production rates.

On the other hand, Minkoff feels that his business could take off if a domestic market opens up for black cod. "There is a lot of interest in getting (black cod) into the North American market ... I think people would really enjoy it,'' he said.

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