A Hawaii-based company wants to open the first offshore fish farm in the Gulf of Mexico about 45 miles west of Sarasota. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which approved a draft permit in August, is seeking public comment on issuing a final permit on the project through Sunday.
Fishing and environmental groups have already raised objections to the proposal by Kampachi Farms to anchor a chain-link mesh pen offshore to raise 20,000 Almaco jack fish – a relative of the popular amberjack – for human consumption. The company plans to hatch the fish from eggs in tanks on shore, then when they become fingerlings move them to the open ocean pen.
The farm, a pilot project, would not only be a first for the gulf, but would also be the first in the federal waters of the continental United States. If it works, then look for others to follow, both here and elsewhere, said Kampachi co-founder Neil Anthony Sims.
“We think the gulf coast of Florida around Tampa offers the most advantageous location, given the criteria we’re looking at,” Sims said. Other companies are eyeing potential fish farm locations off of California and Long Island, he said.
RELATED STORY: Seafood wars ahead? Reflecting on farm-raised fish.
That’s the main reason the Kampachi proposal is drawing opposition from environmental groups and commercial fishing operations: They don’t want offshore fish farms to start popping up all around the country, because they view them as a threat to clean water and a thriving fishing industry.
That the EPA’s analysis says it won’t have a detrimental environmental impact “is folly, just folly,” said Hallie Templeton, senior oceans campaigner for Friends of the Earth.
She cited potential problems with untreated fish feces, pollution from antibiotics and other medical waste and the risk of sick fish escaping from the mesh cage and spreading illnesses among wild fish stocks. She also predicted the mesh might entangle migratory birds and marine mammals in the gulf, including the Bryde’s whale, recently classified as endangered.
While other countries do allow offshore aquaculture projects like Kampachi’s, just last month Denmark officials said they would not allow the opening or expansion of any more offshore fish farms beyond the 19 they already have permitted. They cited environmental problems from the existing fish farms as the reason.
“We have major challenges with oxygen deficiencies,” environmental minister Lea Wermelin said, “and we can see that nitrogen emissions are not falling as expected.”
But Sims said his company, founded in 2010, has successfully opened similar offshore fish farms off Mexico and Hawaii, and used that experience in selecting a prime spot in the gulf that’s in 130 feet of water. That allows the owners to lower the cage deep for protection when a Category 4 or 5 hurricane passes by.
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He contends concerns about pollution from what he called “fish poo” were overblown. After all, he said, there used to be a lot more of it in the world’s oceans, until anglers caught so many fish. It’s “a natural part of the ecosystem,” he said.
And the EPA draft says that “any potentially harmful discharge ... should disperse rapidly,”
The concentration of thousands of fish swimming in one spot, though, is what raises the concern about fish waste among environmental groups. Gulf currents wouldn’t necessarily just whisk it away, either, according to Robert Weisberg, a University of South Florida College of Marine Sciences physical oceanographer.
“Sometimes currents would carry things out of there and sometimes they wouldn’t, because it’s variable,” Weisberg said. ""You can’t simply say it’s always hunky-dory."
Sims seemed less prepared for questions about how the company would deal with a Red Tide algae bloom in the gulf. One such bloom that began 40 miles out in the gulf in November 2017 plagued the state for more than a year, killing thousands of fish as well as manatees and sea turtles.
RELATED STORY: Red Tide bloom now touching all three coasts.
As with a hurricane, he said, the company would try to ride out any toxic algae bloom by cranking the cage down beneath the waves. However, he said, “we don’t have any absolute certainty” that that tactic would work. That’s the whole point of starting off with a pilot project, to see how it goes, he said.
Sims said his company is negotiating with Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota and the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science to handle the on-shore part of the project producing the fingerlings. He said his company has no estimate of the total cost of the pilot program, but added, “it’s an expensive demonstration.”
Should the EPA greenlight the project, that’s not the last permit required to get started, Sims said. The company must also get permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers because of the need to anchor in navigable federal waters.
He contended that far from hurting Florida’s other industries, the fish pen would attract lots of other wild fish and it would turn into a popular spot for snorkelers and divers. “It’s like ‘Blue Planet’ in real life,” he said.
HOW TO COMMENT: You may comment on the proposed action in writing, using Email, FAX or mail before Sept. 29. Submit comments to:
Mailing address: US EPA – WD/PGB ATTN: Meghan Wahlstrom61 Forsyth Street SW Atlanta, GA 30303