The House Agriculture Committee is set to get an education about Mid-South agriculture when it holds a farm bill field hearing in Jonesboro, Ark., on Friday morning.

And Mike Freeze will make sure the lawmakers understand the issues that are important to aquaculture. On Wednesday, Freeze, who operates a central-Arkansas fish farm, spoke with Farm Press about his testimony before the committee, seafood inspections, the Lacey Act, a safety net for fish farmers, and the FSA office closings. Among his comments:

On the Lacey Act…

“The issues fish farmers are facing depends on what kind of aquaculture you’re in: catfish, bait and ornamental fish or some other type. At our farm, Keo Fish Farm, we raise hybrid striped bass and triploid grass carp. That means we ship live product nationally and internationally.

For more on Freeze’s operation, see here.

“For the baitfish and ornamental fish farmers, the top priority is the Lacey Act, which was written in 1900. Unfortunately, it regulates our domesticated fish as if they were taken out of the wild.

“We must be extremely careful moving live product from one state to another. A state penalty may be a $50 misdemeanor. However, if you cross the state line that same $50 state misdemeanor is elevated to a federal felony under the Lacey Act. The penalties start at $100,000 and four months in the federal penitentiary.

“The Lacey Act has been a concern for quite a few years in the aquaculture industry. In fact, in the last farm bill, the Lacey Act was amended to include wood and wood products. That’s why Gibson Guitar got into so much trouble a few months ago because they’d brought in some exotic wood from India. India said the wood was legal for export but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (a bureau in the Department of Interior) interpreted their law as making it illegal. That incident made a big splash.

For more on the Gibson incident, see here.

“Well, we deal with that every day with aquaculture products. And one big problem for farmers is there’s no place to go to find out what the laws are that we aren’t supposed to violate.

“I’ll tell the committee about that.”

Is there a move to amend the Lacey Act?

“The Lacey Act is good for what it was intended to do originally – to regulate the illegal take of wild game and fish. Of course, when the act was written in 1900 there was hardly any aquaculture, if any.

“The problem we have with the Lacey Act is the definition that says it pertains to wild animals and fish. Then it goes on to say ‘even those fish that are reared in captivity.’ So, it specifically includes aquaculture.

“If I was a turkey farmer following all the guidelines and health inspections of USDA, state laws and the like, I could truck them across state lines. Nobody would treat my shipment as if it was made up of wild turkeys.

“The act used to say that you had to ‘knowingly’ break the law for the Lacey Act to kick in. If you had ignorance of the act it used to be a defense. You could be charged with the state misdemeanor but not with the federal felony.”

“That was changed in the 1990s and U.S. Fish and Wildlife has really stepped up the use of the Lacey Act.

“A fish farmer in Wisconsin forgot to get a free, annual permit from the state department of agriculture. I don’t think they send out a renewal notice and he just forgot to get it. Everything else was legal – disease inspections, all the other permits.

“But because he didn’t have that permit he was charged under the Lacey Act. Of course, facing a $100,000 fine, he plea-bargained down to a $5,000 fine. As part of the plea bargain, though, he was told, ‘We need to inspect those farm-raised minnows you’re bringing in from Arkansas – even though (the Aquaculture/Fisheries Center at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) is inspecting them and says they’re safe.’

“That meant the farmer had to send samples of every shipment of minnows he bought to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife lab in LaCrosse and pay the bill. Well, that cost the farmer around $78,000. So, despite the plea-bargain, he was close to the original $100,000 fine.

“We actually asked the National Agricultural Law Center at the University of Arkansas to look at the Lacey Act. Elizabeth Rumley, an attorney there, wrote a report (see here) on it and concluded that farm-raised fish should be exempt from the Lacey Act.

“One of the things that scares us are Senate bills that would expand the Lacey Act and give them authority over aquatic fish diseases. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife has some authority over certain trout diseases. But all the aquatic animal diseases are already regulated by USDA, APHIS, and veterinary services.

“If someone does something wrong, they should be held accountable. However, the punishment has to meet the crime. The Lacey Act is now so far out of whack that when you tell people about it, they have a hard time believing it.”

Services, inspections, offices

On the importance of Wildlife Services and Veterinary Services to the aquaculture industry…

“Wildlife Services (under USDA’s APHIS) employees are very important to us because they have to certify our bird depredation problems. If we have trouble with double-crested cormorants, great blue herons or American egrets, they have to certify, ‘Yes, you do have a problem,’ to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In turn, that agency issues us a permit for some lethal take as part of a control program.

“Unfortunately, in President Obama’s fiscal year 2013 budget, he zeroed out the aquaculture line item for Wildlife Services.

“Also, Veterinary Services has had its budget cut. We must have their authority to issue health permits in order to ship product.  

“It’s true that these are trying fiscal times and there will have to be cuts in a lot of federal agencies. But we don’t believe agencies that regulate our industry should face those cuts more than any other.”

On issues facing catfish producers…

“The catfish industry is still concerned with the seafood inspection (laws passed) in the 2008 farm bill. Even though it passed Congress, it still hasn’t been enacted.

For more on seafood inspections, see here.  

“This really isn’t a trade issue. The catfish industry has already taken it on the chin. In Arkansas, we’ve lost 60 percent of our catfish farmers and acreage already.

“The operations left are beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel. Catfish prices are back up to around $1.25. Eighteen months ago they were at 55 cents and farmers were losing money on every pound sold.

“Seafood inspection is a food safety issue. That’s something that we want to impress on the House Agriculture Committee. The American consumer needs to know that the fish they’re buying is safe to eat.

“There is actually a proposal out that would allow imported seafood to contain compounds that are illegal in the United States. Currently, if the FDA finds a compound illegal here, they’ll reject the shipment.

“That would change if this proposal – which is currently before Congress – passes and allows the FDA to establish tolerance levels for unapproved chemicals.

“Once again, this is a safety issue. If something isn’t safe to be in American-produced food then why should it be allowed in imports?”

On an aquaculture ‘safety net’…

“The committee also needs to know that aquaculture – especially food fish growers – need some kind of a safety net, some kind of an insurance product, like the government provides for row-crop farming.”

On the FSA office closings…

“I may not have time, but in my written testimony I’ll complain about the FSA office closings. I’m one of five FSA state board members in Arkansas and the USDA plans to close 10 county offices. The state FSA committees had zero input into this.

For more on the closings, see here and here.

“The problem is the USDA bought out employees at some of the FSA offices last December. That got them down to the two-or-fewer-employee threshold to meet the 2008 farm bill language justifying office closings.

“We’ll just be asking if the state FSA committees can be allowed to trade one county office closing for another, to finetune things and use more common sense.

“An example of an FSA office that needs to stay open is (in Arkansas’) Faulkner County - brand new building, infrastructure in place, a moderate to heavy workload.”