The federal government is adopting new policies aimed at boosting aquaculture production in the U.S. at a time when Americans are eating more imported seafood than ever.

fishaquaculture-featured.jpgForeign aquaculture accounts for around half of the 84 percent of seafood imported by the U.S., a very small percentage of which is inspected by public health authorities before entering commerce.

“Our current trade deficit in seafood is approximately $9 billion,” Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said Thursday with the unveiling of the new policies, which were crafted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under the Department of Commerce.

“Encouraging and developing the U.S. aquaculture industry will result in economic growth and create jobs at home, support exports to global markets, and spur new innovations in technology to support the industry,” said Locke.

Jane Lubchenco, under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator says the administration is seeking to promote “sustainable” domestic aquaculture as “an additional source of healthy seafood to complement wild fisheries,” while supporting both the economy and ecosystems.

The agencies will be developing a National Shellfish Initiative in partnership with the industry and will be implementing the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Plan for Aquaculture, a plan that paves the way for offshore aquaculture development in the Gulf. The move comes a year after the devastating Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill that severely impacted the local seafood economy.

Some consumer and environmental groups are skeptical of the new policies.

“Industrial ocean fish farming is a filthy way to produce fish, and contrary to NOAA’s claims, it is not a sustainable means to supplement the U.S. seafood supply, protect ocean resources, or promote a healthy economy in the United States,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Washington, DC-based Food & Water Watch, who also criticized the plans to allow “factory fish farms” in the Gulf of Mexico.

“The Gulf has already been battered by the oil industry – the last thing we need is enormous ocean fish farms that can and do spread disease, allow for millions of fish to escape, kill off wild populations, jeopardize the tourism industry, and further destroy the livelihood of local fishermen,” said Hauter. Food & Water watch estimates that as many as 8.6 million farmed fish could escape unreported each year under the new proposal.

According to Hauter, if the new development goals are met, the seafood facilities could generate waste “equal to the untreated sewage of about 17.1 million people.” Hauter also pointed to widespread concerns about farmed fish escaping into the wild, a serious problem that weakens wild fish stocks and can spread disease.

Time’s environment and energy reporter Bryan Walsh noted Thursday on Eccocentric that weak environmental regulation is part of the reason countries like Chile and China currently farm-raise seafood at a lower cost than domestic producers, though, as Walsh points out, cheap labor and land help too. (Almost a quarter of U.S.-imported seafood comes from China, followed by Thailand, 16 percent, and Canada, 13 percent. Indonesia, Vietnam, and Ecuador are each responsible for around 5 percent.)

“It’d be great to see the domestic aquaculture industry grow–as long as it doesn’t put the U.S. into a race to the bottom,” he writes. “No one wins then.”

The plan to expand domestic aquaculture comes in the wake of a Government Accountability Office report that found serious gaps in the government’s oversight of imported seafood. Oversight is especially critical considering the growing percentage of imported seafood that is farmed because fish grown in confined spaces can develop bacterial infections and health problems, which prompt the use of antibiotics and other drugs that can find their way onto dinner plates.

The GAO report, released last month, found that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s program for ensuring imports are free of antibiotics and unapproved drug residues is “limited.”

“Seafood containing residues of drugs not approved for use in the United States may be entering U.S. commerce,” states GAO in the report. “FDA’s sampling program is ineffectively implemented. For example, for fiscal years 2006 through 2009, FDA missed its assignment plan goal for collecting import samples by about 30 percent.”

The report also noted that in 2009 FDA only tested about 0.1 percent of all imported seafood products for drug residues.