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Feds select Gulf of Mexico as potential zone for fish farming

The gulf joins Southern California in becoming a space for “Aquaculture Opportunity Areas,” the first two in the United States.
A Hawaii-based company, Ocean Era (formerly known as Kampachi Farms), wants to launch an offshore fish farm in the Gulf of Mexico about 45 miles west of Sarasota. This photo shows the pen used in a Hawaii operation, which is similar to what's planned for the Gulf of Mexico.
A Hawaii-based company, Ocean Era (formerly known as Kampachi Farms), wants to launch an offshore fish farm in the Gulf of Mexico about 45 miles west of Sarasota. This photo shows the pen used in a Hawaii operation, which is similar to what's planned for the Gulf of Mexico. [ Courtesy of Kampachi Farms by Rick Decker ]
Published Aug. 20, 2020
Updated Aug. 20, 2020

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Thursday chose the Gulf of Mexico as one of two places where it will look to grow offshore fish farming.

The gulf joins Southern California in becoming a region for “Aquaculture Opportunity Areas,” the first two in the United States. President Donald Trump issued an executive order earlier this year outlining the concept as a way of boosting the country’s seafood industry and reducing its reliance on imported fish. The selection covers federal waters but does not identify more specific locations.

“The creation of Aquaculture Opportunity Areas will foster the U.S. aquaculture industry as a needed complement to our wild capture fisheries,” said Chris Oliver, the assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries, in a statement. “This type of proactive work creates opportunities for aquaculture farmers and maintains our commitment to environmental stewardship.”

For proponents, the industry is a way to expand jobs and seafood harvests without overfishing. But some commercial fishing and advocacy groups are divided on whether aquaculture is a good investment. They raise concerns about fish waste dirtying the water and farmed species passing diseases to wild marine life.

The designation granted Thursday does not mean farms will instantly pop up on the Florida coast. The Administration said to pick specific locations, it will go through a process involving scientific studies, working with state officials and holding public meetings. The gulf could host three to five operations, potentially involving finfish, shellfish and seaweed, according to the announcement. Federal waters start a little more than 10 miles from the state’s western shore.

One project already predates the opportunity area, and it is near Florida. Operators are awaiting a permitting decision from the Environmental Protection Agency on a pitch to raise almaco jack fish 45 miles west of Sarasota. Neil Anthony Sims, founder of the company behind that effort, Ocean Era, said the eastern gulf is a good location because it has clear, warm water and no oil rigs or especially heavy commercial traffic that could interfere with farming.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried in June wrote a letter to the secretary of commerce asking for the state to be considered as an Aquaculture Opportunity Area. She noted that Florida already has a leasing program for submerged lands, regulating more than a thousand plots as farmers grow shellfish like clams and oysters.

“Florida is uniquely positioned to advance an environmentally sustainable offshore aquaculture industry in the Gulf of Mexico and the southern Atlantic Ocean,” Fried wrote.

The Administration’s announcement comes weeks after a federal court dealt a setback to aquaculture in the gulf, affirming that traditional fisheries oversight does not cover farming and regulation will require action from Congress.

Marianne Cufone, an attorney on that case and director of the Environmental Law Program at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, said Thursday’s news indicates the agency “is not getting the message.”

“This administration just is doing its own thing unfortunately,” she said.

Sims, from Ocean Era, has said his group’s project would not cause harm to the environment and would be sustainable, despite some community opposition. He said the federal government is smart to identify areas appropriate for fish farms before companies do it themselves.

“In terms of community consultation, that’s a tremendous step,” he said. “Aquaculture Opportunity Areas will make future applications easier for other applicants.”