Most of the world's marine fisheries are either fully exploited or overexploited, and 90 per cent of the ocean's big fish are gone, experts say.
There is no scientific argument about this. And a recent report by the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation says recovery of the world's depleted fish stocks is an urgent matter.
One way to rebuild stocks is through fish farming. While better fisheries management is essential, the FAO says aquaculture can reduce the pressure on wild fisheries and keep the price of fish from soaring.
Global fish production was 133 million tonnes in 2002, and aquaculture produced almost a third of that. But the FAO projects that world fish consumption will rise to 179 million tonnes in 10 years, and says most of that new demand will have to be met by aquaculture.
In fact, farmed fish could account for as much as 40 per cent of all fish production by 2015, according to the FAO.
Meanwhile, our own marine resources are also under heavy pressure from overfishing and development. The crawfish catch has peaked, conch stocks are declining, and groupers are threatened by destruction of their spawning aggregations.
Official response to all this has been slow. Although several areas were designated as no-take marine reserves in the late 1990s, it is doubtful that the restrictions could be enforced even if the policy were implemented tomorrow. But such a course is nevertheless strongly recommended by marine scientists worldwide.
More recently, the government tentatively banned grouper fishing during the winter spawning season. Again, such a policy had been advocated for years by fisheries experts in a desperate bid to save the last remaining commercial stocks in the region.
And the BEST Commission now requires independent environmental impact assessments for major developments in order to protect our land and sea environment from thoughtless destruction.
But the government's inability to take swift and decisive action in a transparent way will likely lead to further degradation of our marine resources – and to painful lifestyle changes – unless we are very lucky. So, is fish farming a solution?
Well, the 30-year history of aquaculture in the Bahamas is not a very awe-inspiring track record. A policy was drafted in 1970 and by 1983 we had a framework for development – including fishery regulations, tax incentives and land/ocean leases.
From 1979 to 2000 over two dozen projects were approved. They involved native species (conch, lobster, snapper and grouper) as well as non-native species (shrimp, tilapia and marine ornamentals). There is also an ongoing transplantation experiment to re-grow damaged corals in the Berry Islands.
These ventures have included a shrimp farm at the old Diamond Crystal salt works on Long Island, a tilapia farm on Grand Bahama operated by a local vet, lobster research at Inagua sponsored by Morton Salt, tilapia studies at the Perry institute's marine facility in Exuma, an ad hoc dolphin farm at Spanish Wells, shrimp and tilapia ponds off Soldier Road in Nassau, a proposed lobster ranch and several attempts at conch farming.
Most of these projects were short-lived, and many were complete flops. Some never even got off the ground. So why all the fuss these past few weeks over a proposed fish farm at Inagua?
The $12 million Ocean Farms project was first mooted in 1999 by California aquaculture expert George Lockwood. The Department of Fisheries recommended the project to then prime minister Hubert Ingraham in early 2000. And he eventually approved it in principle.
Right after the May, 2002 general election, the developers met with the new government and were promised a quick turnaround following submission of a business plan. In early 2003 they began negotiating a heads of agreement for the project with Trade & Industry Minister Leslie Miller, which was finalised that summer.
But in October, 2003 the project was put on hold following objections from Dr Livingstone Marshall, Prime Minister Perry Christie's new science advisor. And ever since, the developers and the government have engaged in an on-again, off-again duel over the project's credentials.
A few weeks ago, the duel went public. And we witnessed some bruising clashes in the press between Dr Marshall, the prime minister, Mr Lockwood and Ocean Farms' attorney, Bill Holowesko. He is the husband of former BEST Commission chairman and Bahamas National Trust chief, Lynn Holowesko.
Dr Marshall is a Bahamian marine biologist and former professor at Morgan State University in Maryland who became a consultant to the prime minister in April, 2003. He insists that the developers must produce evidence of financial backing and undertake a full environmental impact assessment.
"There are very real risks associated with most aquaculture projects," he said recently. "The government and the residents of Inagua deserve to have a clear view as to the likely impacts of any proposed project on the environment, prior to approval."
But the developers say they provided a 'virtual' EIA in response to the government's numerous objections to the project over the past year or so. They planned to commission a full report – and raise the financing – once official assurances had been received on the project's viability.
There is a large body of environmental opinion against some types of aquaculture. For example, experts say we take more protein out of the sea to feed carnivorous fish like salmon than we get back in farmed product.
Disease is also common in high-density fish farms, and is controlled by antibiotics that can be toxic. And fish farm waste is often flushed into the sea, damaging coastal wetlands. Parasites, like sea lice which infest salmon, are another chronic problem.
And there is the issue of captive fish escaping into the wild, and competing or cross-breeding with native marine life. Experts say such escapes or accidental releases are a common occurrence.
But there is also a growing consensus that if developed properly, fish farming could feed the world without destroying the environment – a 'blue revolution' according to a recent article in the Economist magazine:
"While fishermen can work only on improving the efficiency with which they capture the few remaining fish, aquaculture can work at lowering its costs of production (so that) it may start to undercut the costs of open-seas fishing to the point where the subsidies given to ocean fisheries become patently ridiculous. In this way farming might one day relieve the pressure on wild fisheries."
The unsigned heads of agreement for Ocean Farms said the company would build raised ponds well inland on more than 250 acres of government property adjacent to Morton Bahamas to grow five marine plants and animals.
Cold seawater would be pumped from deep-water pipelines to circulate through the ponds, and the effluent would be flushed underground in deep injection wells.
The project was to have raised gracilaria (an edible seaweed that grows wild here), abalone (a sought-after Pacific shellfish), tilapia (a fresh-water fish indigenous to Africa), American oysters (another popular shellfish) and salmon (a prized cold-water food fish).
All of these species have been farmed around the world for many years. Mr Lockwood's system would grow them together, using patented technology that he pioneered in Hawaii. And the goal was to supply the premium end of the $5 billion market for farmed seafood in the US.
According to Mr Lockwood, the system he proposed is "environmentally sustainable, integrated, and low-cost…with distinctive niche markets for superior products." He claimed to have a supply agreement with Whole Foods Market, America's top organic food grocer.
Inagua was chosen from a range of sites in the region because it has deep water right offshore (with no reefs to damage) along with serviceable air and sea ports. The Bahamian investment climate was also thought to be superior to alternatives like Jamaica.
Lockwood has a background in marine engineering and became involved in aquaculture in California during the 1970s. In 1984 he founded Ocean farms of Hawaii – a $30 million facility to grow abalone, seaweed, oysters and salmon on a commercial scale using cold pure seawater pumped from the deep ocean.
Facilities at the State Natural Energy Laboratory in Hawaii continue to use deep ocean water to raise coldwater species like Japanese founder, Pacific oyster, Maine lobster, and abalone in onshore ponds. This system is said to eliminate the use of chemicals and antibiotics, producing a high-value "organically" farmed product.
Lockwood sold his Hawaiian interests to Japanese investors in 1990 – but retained worldwide rights to the technologies developed and used at Ocean Farms (except in Hawaii and Japan). He is a past president of the World Aquaculture Society and has lectured at Columbia and Stanford Universities.
Much of the opposition to Lockwood's Inagua proposal stems from the fact that it would introduce non-native species that could escape and harm our marine environment. But, as he points out, salmon and abalone cannot survive in warm water, and the American oyster lives in brackish water with much higher densities of microalgae to eat than are found here. The gracilaria seaweed is native to the Bahamas, and tilapia have been grown here for decades.
"All of the fish, shellfish and algae are contained in ponds and tanks onshore," Mr Lockwood wrote in a report last November. "What might otherwise be considered metabolic waste for each specie becomes nutrients for other species in this system. This mimics nature.
"The location of the facility with its pure, deep ocean water and the careful procurement of eggs, larvae and spores, coupled with a biosecurity programme, eliminate diseases and the need for treatment with chemical and medical compounds. Cold water does not flow back into the sea and low levels of waste clearly differentiate this system from (other forms) of aquaculture."
Dr Marshall acknowledges that all aquaculture projects carry some risk. But in a recent talk, he said native species should be used to minimise that risk, adding that: "The submission of a comprehensive EIA as requested by the BEST Commission is vital to the government's assessment of the project….and the financial capability to operate the facility must be clearly demonstrated.
"In our attempt to establish a thriving aquaculture industry, we must go about it in a manner that will not repeat the mistakes of the past," he said.
Other local experts agree that setting up a mariculture project requires a full EIA because "nothing is foolproof when it comes to the environment." But they also argue that some understanding could have been achieved: "Lockwood wanted assurances that the project would be approved upon acceptance of the impact study. Why would we be reluctant to offer that?"
Others argue that the Bahamas lacks the technical capacity to deal with such complex proposals, and the BEST Commission is feeling its way with limited resources. The government has planned for years to set up a cabinet-level environmental protection agency, but when it comes to this kind of project politicians often lack interest in the results.
So Lockwood is now looking to site his project in the Turks & Caicos. And Inagua is not the only big aquaculture development to quit the Bahamas and look elsewhere:
A recent proposal to farm a kingfish-like species called cobia on Grand Bahama also could make no headway with government permit procedures, which seemed hopelessly open-ended and unpredictable to the developer – who concluded that Belize was a better bet.
The only judgement we would make here is that there should be a reasonable and transparent policy for all such applications – with all the ground rules published up front. There is too much dithering and personal intervention when it comes to development proposals, and some experts say we should have an independent technical agency to take such proposals out of the cabinet's purview.
In the meantime, the depressed state of Inagua's economy is a source of concern to the thousand or so inhabitants of Matthew Town. They rely for employment on a handful of ecotourists attracted by the Flamingo flocks on Lake Rosa and on Morton's solar salt operation.
But Agriculture Minister Alfred Gray, who as the island's member of parliament has felt some heat on this issue, told them recently that the government was looking at other projects now.
The views expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the Nassau Institute (which has no corporate view), or its Advisers or Directors.
This article was first published in The Tribune on Wednesday, April 21, 2005.
The column 'Tough Call' by Larry Smith is published in The Tribune every Wednesday and is reprinted here as a courtesy. Mr. Smith founded and successfully grew an advertising agency over 20 years. Under his direction Media Enterprises diversified into short-run commercial printing and publishing, and is now the largest non-fiction book wholesaler in the Bahamas. He has 30 years experience as a journalist and publicist and has contributed numerous articles and columns to the Bahamian press. A former reporter at the Nassau Guardian, local correspondent for Reuters and editor at the Bahamas News Bureau, he conceived and edited the Bahama Almanac (published 2000 by Media Enterprises), wrote the commentary for Mike Toogood's Portrait of an Archipelago (published 2004 by Macmillan Caribbean), and edited the Bahamas Environmental Handbook (published 2002 by the government). In 2003 he took a year's leave of absence from Media Enterprises to lead a transition management team at the Nassau Guardian after the paper was acquired by local investors. After leaving the Guardian he was contracted by the Tribune as online manager/editor and columnist. He has a degree in political science and journalism from the University of Miami. Mr. Smith can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org