Offshore fish farms are to be built for the first time off Cornwall, in a potentially controversial attempt to emulate the success of Scotland's salmon industry.
The Crown Estate, which owns most of the UK's foreshore, is seeking a business partner to build a pilot farm for rainbow trout, a fish native to North America, by 2018.
Farmed salmon has become Scotland's largest food export, with sales of more than £1bn a year, and it is hoped Cornish trout could match it. The only Cornish fish farms at present are onshore.
Concerns have already been expressed that a pilot site could antagonise fish-farm critics as well as the country's tourist leaders and Nimby second-home owners. Opponents of aquaculture criticise the use of antibiotics to keep fish stock healthy, and point to problems with lice and to seabed pollution.
Alex Adrian, aquaculture operations manager at the Crown Estate, said that it planned to demonstrate that the concept works, then expand the business around the Cornish coast. "We are hoping an operator will look to develop other farms in the area," he said. "We would hope that ultimately we would see fish farms as routinely as you would see boats or other marine activities."
Mr Adrian said the Crown Estate planned to keep all interested parties informed to minimise conflict and misunderstanding. Bournemouth University is already researching the business interests affected. He accepted that once specific locations are pinpointed, people who have bought homes with sea views might offer vociferous objection.
The project is a joint initiative led by the Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), with the British Trout Association, an industry body. Dr Neil Auchterlonie, of Cefas, said there was a "large market for marine-reared trout" that freshwater farms, already "under pressure", are unlikely to be able to satisfy. "There's much more space to develop in the marine environment," he said.
Dr Auchterlonie said they were anxious to learn about the environmental impacts of the farms. "We are interested in the sustainability of the operation. We are looking at a long-term collaborative agreement with an operator so we can look at environmental impact and fish health.
Rainbow trout is seen as a low risk species because it can be routinely sterilised to prevent any interbreeding with native trout. David Bassett, of the British Trout Association, said: "There's a really strong demand... for large trout. If it were possible to commercially farm large trout off south-west England, that's something we would like to consider."
Earlier this month at the Seafood Expo in Brussels, Maria Damanaki, European Fisheries Commissioner, signalled EU support for aquaculture as a means to take the pressure off wild fish. "The growing demand, especially for omega-3-rich fish, cannot be met by simply fishing more out of the sea," she said. "Our fish stocks are still reeling from years of over-fishing. Sustainable farming means producing while ensuring that our waters stay clean, our ecosystems rich and healthy, and that consumer protection and social rules are respected."
The growth of aquaculture, which provides almost half the seafood eaten worldwide, has been described as a "paradigm shift in food production" by Professor Joao Ferreira, of the University of Lisbon. "The last time it happened [was] 10,000 years ago, when hunter gatherers settled down and started farming."