As concerns about the nation’s widening deficit grow louder, it’s not only important to understand the government’s approach to hot-button issues like Medicare, military spending, and tax cuts for the wealthy. We need to pay attention to other critical issues.

Consider the administration’s 2012 budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Just one year after the BP oil disaster, the agency only requested $2.9 million for oil spill research and recovery efforts in the Gulf of Mexico. Given the environmental devastation wreaked following the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, this is absurdly low.

Meanwhile, the government wants to allocate $4.3 million to build harmful factory fish farms and $54 million to implement controversial fishery management plans that would put smaller-scale fishermen out of business. Neither of these line items should be a priority. Unfortunately and unwisely, we’re industrializing oceans. Our government, along with large corporations and even some environmental organizations, is working to turn our fisheries into money-making machines.

The practice of ocean factory fish farming (also known as “offshore aquaculture”) mass-produces fish. These large-scale fish farms use floating cages or net pens in open-ocean waters. Picture thousands of salmon, sea bass, or other kinds of fish eating, excreting, and growing in what are essentially factory farms of the sea–farms that often require chemicals, antibiotics, and pesticides.

Norway, Chile, Scotland, and other leaders in factory fish farming have reaped catastrophic results. For instance, an infectious disease common to crowded fish farms devastated Chile’s salmon industry in 2007.

As our nation debates the widening deficit, why is the Obama administration considering allocating more than $4 million to create this harmful industry?

And why is NOAA, the agency tasked with protecting our ocean resources, intent on ultimately growing this industry into a $5 billion empire capable of emitting waste equal to the untreated sewage of about 17.1 million people–more than twice the population of New York City?

Unfortunately, NOAA isn’t stopping there. The agency is also promoting a catch-and-trade system to essentially privatize fishing. Under this approach, access to fish in any given region is divvied up and then given to certain companies and individuals, pushing out smaller-scale, more traditional fishermen.

These programs apply the same bad logic that drove family farmers off their land: get big or get out. And now they’re being implemented on every U.S. shoreline.

In Alaska’s Bristol Bay king crab fishery, only 89 out of 251 boats remained a year after a catch-and-trade program was introduced. In New England, a catch-and-trade system has led to predictions that 50 to 75 percent of the affected fishing fleet will be lost, destroying thousands of jobs.

Over the last seven years, NOAA has expanded catch-and-trade programs across the nation. Now the Obama administration wants to allocate more than $54 million to the divisive policy in the 2012 budget.

If the catch-and-trade system and factory fish farming continue to proliferate, the economies of coastal and fishing communities will be decimated in the coming decade. Our ocean resources and ecosystems will also suffer.

Ultimately, the ongoing consolidation of our food system will have terrible repercussions for all of us. We’ll have fewer choices in the marketplace overall and lower quality food, including fish. Whether you live near the water or not, join me in challenging the industrialization of our fisheries and the wasteful mismanagement of our federal dollars.

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Wenonah Hauter

Wenonah Hauter is the executive director of Food & Water Watch.

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