An unusual experiment testing the Pavlovian responses of black sea bass in Buzzards Bay faces a court challenge.

An unusual experiment testing the potential for Pavlovian conditioning in fish faces a court challenge now that a consumer group claims the project’s permit was improperly put on a fast track.


Food & Water Watch Inc., a Washington nonprofit organization that has regularly raised concerns about aquaculture, filed a lawsuit in Boston federal court last week against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the agency’s May 30 approval of the experiment.


Food & Water Watch also requested a temporary restraining order that would block the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole from moving forward with the experiment until the Army Corps can do a more thorough review. A hearing on the issue has been scheduled for Monday in federal court, said Marianne Cufone, director of Food & Water Watch’s fish program.


Food & Water Watch argues that the Army Corps erred by not pursuing a more lengthy regulatory process or holding a public hearing on the proposal. “The Army Corps of Engineers is supposed to be representing the public on this,” Cufone said “It just seems like they didn’t do their job.”


The Marine Biological Laboratory experiment involves placing about 5,000 sea bass in an underwater dome about 35 feet below the surface in an area of Buzzards Bay near the Weepecket Islands. Marine Biological researchers would signal a feeding time by playing a manmade tone. After several weeks, researchers would release the fish, wait a few days, play the tone again and release food in the dome area and find out if fish can be trained to return at the sound of a certain tone.


The federally funded project, if successful, could have a major impact on the way saltwater fish can be farmed for food.


But critics of the project, which include Food & Water Watch, say the experiment could cause a nitrogen buildup in the area from the fish food and raise the risk of the potential transfer of a disease among the fish, among other problems. Some critics also expressed concerns about the possible impact on cormorants that roost on the Weepecket Islands.


“We’re hoping that they delay the project enough to adequately consider all the concerns,” Cufone said of the Army Corps.


A spokesman for the Army Corps declined to comment about the lawsuit, citing the agency’s policy against discussing pending litigation. A spokeswoman for Marine Biological also declined to comment for similar reasons.


In its comments on the project, the Army Corps said it determined that any impact on the environment would be minor and short-lived because of the experiment’s small and temporary nature, making a full-scale environmental review and a public hearing unnecessary.


Jon Chesto may be reached at jchesto@ledger.com.