Catfish farmers buck EPA survey

Draft described as `too intrusive and subject to misinterpretation' Even though EPA says it is months, if not several years, away from finishing an initial draft of aquaculture waste-water regulations, the agency has taken some recent controversial actions. Many catfish farmers, already upset with EPA, say a pending survey of their operations is akin to rubbing salt in a gaping wound.

In January 2000, EPA announced its intentions to eventually adopt regulations that protect U.S. waters from fish farm waste. The agency now plans to complete a draft proposal by 2002 and begin enforcing the new rules by 2004. Targeted for oversight are all aquaculture operations, including Texas shrimp farms, trout farms, coastal salmon operations and Delta catfish ponds.

The regulations - under the umbrella of the 1972 Clean Water Act - could eventually mean a slew of requirements at these operations, including new filter types, water-cleaning techniques and farm layout changes.

It could also mean, say many catfish farmers, that many in the aquaculture business will be drowned under the new deluge of costly regulations. Arkansas fish farmers say that some 20 percent of them could go out of business due to the regulations. Any such removal would be a blow to the Delta area of the state, which, already poor, would be hard-pressed to make up any of the departed $170 million that the industry brings to the region annually.

The first thing many catfish farmers want answered is this: why the need for water regulation in the first place? After all, the water in catfish ponds is perfectly suitable for fish-growing. If the pond isn't a healthy environment, the farmer ruins his own crop and pays for his nonchalance at harvest.

Most importantly, however, farmers point out that the pond water is repeatedly used and draining of ponds is rare (perhaps once every 10 years). Unlike other fish-farming operations, little is released into waterways. Often this is because neighboring row-crop fields need the water for irrigation.

Most upsetting to farmers, though, is the recently formed Aquaculture Effluents Task Force - the group now reviewing pollution control strategies and technologies. Last summer, the task force announced it would soon be sending select farmers a 31-page financial survey. The survey's supposed purpose? To find out how much regulatory cost fish farmers can handle. To accomplish this, the survey will ask details about farming operations and finances. The survey will also request a farmer's balance sheet, a list of farm assets and an income statement. Civil and/or criminal penalties may be imposed on any farmer not answering the questions.

"The truth is, the EPA doesn't care if a big chunk of fish farmers go out of business (due to the new regulations)," says one Delta catfish farmer. "They can deny it all they want, but if they get a large percentage of us to out of the business, (EPA) would consider that a success story."

Although not going to those extremes, aquaculture economist Carole Engle, director of the Aquaculture-Fisheries Center at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and also an appointee to the Aquaculture Effluents Task Force, has said publicly that EPA officials could accept a farmer failure rate as high as 20 percent.

Another point repeatedly brought up by those in aquaculture is the fact that EPA has admitted to being spurred to regulatory action by a 1997 Environmental Defense Fund report titled "Murky Waters." The report, farmers insist, uses faulty science, poor assumptions and blatant untruths.

"And EDF isn't exactly a place to go for unbiased material! Anybody who looks at what they stand for, knows EDF is full of left-wing environmentalists. But despite having these things pointed out to it over and over, (EPA) keeps on using this "Murky Waters" report as their starting point. Hell, they don't even deny it - they aren't ashamed of it at all!" says the catfish farmer.

In fact, Delta Farm Press has found statements made by Charles Fox, assistant administrator in EPA's Office of Water, that the EDF report was at least partly responsible for the agency's actions.

What are the catfish industry advocates doing and saying?

"As far as I know, EPA hasn't yet released the survey. There is a draft survey floating around, though. There are some serious consequences if a farmer doesn't answer the questions and that's led to a lot of concern out there among the farmers," says Catfish Farmers of America head Hugh Warren.

"We're fighting the whole survey because it's burdensome, costly and there are legal problems with it," says Warren.

On Nov. 13, 2000, Warren wrote a letter to EPA pointing out some of the draft survey's shortcomings. Among the more salient points:

- Draft survey questions show that EPA lacks a basic understanding of pond aquaculture.

Warren discusses this by pointing out seven questions which deal with "process water and wastewater treatment.... These questions cannot be answered in any meaningful way because water use in ponds cannot be compared to that in other industries that EPA regulated in the past. Any attempt by fish farmers to answer these questions will provide information subject to gross misinterpretation by EPA."

- The survey requests information that is intrusive and unrelated to the development of effluent guidelines.

While conceding that under the Clean Water Act, collection of information from fish farmers is allowed, Warren says EPA's draft survey exceeds the scope of allowable authority "by seeking disclosure of proprietary financial information such as corporation type, number of employees, three years of income statements as well as assets, liabilities and equity.

"Not only is the request for this level of information intrusive and unwarranted, the limited amount of viable information likely to be obtained in this process would lead to erroneous interpretation. CFA is also concerned about EPA's ability to insure confidential business information protection regarding assets and liabilities."

Aquaculture economist Carole Engle, director of the Aquaculture-Fisheries Center at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and also an appointee to the Aquaculture Effluents Task Force, has said publicly that EPA officials could accept a farmer failure rate as high as 20 percent.

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