April 22, 2008

Sacramento State researcher hopes to bring
a sea change to offshore fish farm policies

Bill Leach, research director for Sacramento State’s Center for Collaborative Policy, isn’t studying clams, but he’s receiving a lot of them to study the debate about the commercial farming of fish and shellfish in the oceans.

Leach is part of a research team that received $284,982 in grant money this year from the National Science Foundation to examine partnerships both for and against marine aquaculture, in hopes of helping the two competing sides negotiate a solution.

Advocates of marine aquaculture tout its potential to provide a reliable and nutritious food source while easing the United States' seafood trade deficit, Leach says. Critics worry that it might deplete wild fish stocks, pollute marine environments, displace fishing-dependent communities and produce seafood that is chemically and genetically tainted.

“There is an increasing amount of interest in aquaculture in the United States,” Leach says. “We consume a lot of seafood, but we don’t produce as much as we eat. We have a seafood trade deficit which exceeds $7 billion per year.”

Although the debate about promoting and regulating marine aquaculture is still in its infancy, hundreds of stakeholders from government agencies, American Indian tribes, universities and the private sector are vying to influence policy decisions, Leach says.

Many of the stakeholders have formed partnerships to bolster support, but the aquaculture concept has largely been stalemated. “Both sides are at an impasse and bills that would set policy aren’t able to move through Congress or the state legislatures,” he says.

Leach says he hopes the study will help both sides work together to agree on the science and policy questions about where to put facilities and how to operate them.

“Collaborative approaches allow public policy debates to move forward, but in a way that is amenable to all sides of the issue,” he says.

The study will employ two student assistants when the field work begins in 2009. Leach says he designed the project to be a "dream job" for graduate students writing theses in public policy or conservation biology. "They'll get to travel to coastal communities around the country, tour aquaculture facilities and interview people on both sides of the debate."

Leach is conducting the study with Christopher Weible, an assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Public Policy.

For more information on the grant project, contact Leach at (916) 341-3334. For media assistance, contact the Sacramento State Public Affairs office at (916) 278-6156.