The Bush administration, seeking to tap into one of the world's fastest-growing food industries, is proposing to allow fish farming up to 200 miles off the nation's coasts.

Citing pilot projects off New Hampshire, Hawaii and Puerto Rico, the administration said Tuesday it was sending a bill to Congress to establish regulations for fish farming, known as aquaculture (search).

Currently, fish farming in the United States focuses largely on freshwater fish such as catfish, though there also are some ocean farms raising shellfish like mussels, clams and oysters.

In countries from Canada to China to Scotland to Thailand, farming of saltwater species such as salmon and shrimp has become increasingly common, with much of the catch sold in the United States.

Fish farming has drawn criticism from environmentalists, however, who say food fed to farmed fish can pollute the water, create excessive waste in a concentrated area and increase the possibility of parasites and disease in farmed fish.

Seafood demand is expected to increase rapidly and officials of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say the United States has fallen behind other countries in farming fish. Currently the United States imports 70 percent of the seafood eaten here and 40 percent is from overseas fish farms.

"Today's action will create jobs and revenues for coastal communities and U.S. businesses by allowing for the expansion of an underutilized industry," Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez (search) said in a statement.

Currently, the United States does not have a regulatory structure in place to allow aquaculture operations in federal marine waters.

The bill being sent to Congress would permit fish farming up to 200 miles off the coast, to be regulated by NOAA, a part of the Commerce Department.

"Our goal is to develop a sustainable aquaculture program that balances the needs of fishermen, coastal residents and visitors, seafood consumers, the environment, and the aquaculture industry," said NOAA Administrator Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr.

NOAA said there are advantages to locating fish farms farther off shore including water depth, currents and water quality. Pilot projects have used submerged cages for fish and long lines for mussels.