Proposed fish farm in Southwest Florida first of its kind in federal waters, draws some concern
Southwest Florida's Gulf shore is a seashell lover's dream. Check out these seven that are among those shells that are frequently found in the region. Scientific and common names follow each photo. Thanks, to Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum for the photos and to museum Science Director & Curator Jose Leal, for the identifications.
A Hawaiian-based company is planning an offshore finfish farm in federal waters off the coast of Southwest Florida.
Kampachi Farms has proposed a pilot-scale marine aquaculture facility named Velella Epsilon to be built in the Gulf of Mexico 45 miles south of Sarasota.
"I think there is a pressing global need to expand food production," said Neil Sims, co-founder of Kampachi Farms. "A United Nations high level panel on oceans said one of the five key steps to address the climate crisis is to start to shift from terrestrial agriculture to marine agriculture."
The proposed farm will raise 88,000 pounds of almaco jack fish each year, the same amount caught by commercial fishers in Florida each year. Sims said the Velella Epsilon project will consist of a demonstration pen where the farmed fish will be held. The pen will measure 20 feet deep and 50 feet across. It is able to be submerged about 7 meters, or 20 feet.
"We would hope that if we were to get permit by February or March next year, we will have fish in the water by July or August," Sims said. "It takes a lot of prep and it might be six months after permits."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a draft environmental assessment for the project.
"On August 30, 2019, EPA Region 4 provided the public a 30-day comment period for a draft National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for the Kampachi Farms," EPA spokeswoman Dawn Harris Young wrote in an email. "During the 30-day public comment period, EPA received a significant number of comments. The EPA is currently reviewing the comments received and is evaluating the need for a public hearing and potential extension of the public comment period."
Environmental groups have said that the public comment period was not long enough and hope that the EPA opens a public hearing.
"We're watchdogging this closely," said Hallie Templeton, the senior oceans campaigner for the advocacy group Friends of the Earth. "We have urged the EPA to hold public input; we’ll see what happens. There has been written comment, but we have not heard anything out of the agency."
Templeton said the farm poses a risk to the environment through the discharge of excess nutrients into the Gulf and other concerns.
"Net pens are free flowing exchange, and anything in a net pen can just leech into surrounding waterway," she said. "Fish waste and excess fish feed go into existing environment. There's no way that could be a win, it could not be beneficial. They say could be diluted, but dilution is not solution to the pollution."
Sims said there has been extensive monitoring around Kampachi's other offshore pens that show no impact on water quality between up current and down current.
"Nutrients are rapidly assimilated into the ecosystem," he said. "The red tide issue found in Florida is usually very close to shore, and there's a lot of nutrients running off land. That's part of why we are doing this 40 miles offshore where there is good water exchange."
A large Florida red tide bloom caused massive fish kills and respiratory irritations last year and a smaller bloom is currently on the coast of Southwest Florida.
The EPA's draft assessment noted Florida's red tides, and acknowledged excess nutrients from fish farms can promote growth, but says, "(the) permit is being issued with conditions to monitor the discharge and protect water quality."
Kampachi's other Velella projects have all been monitored and were sort of test runs leading up to a larger scale operation, Sims said. After the fish pen in the Gulf is built, Sims hopes to move the company forward, but this worries environmentalists.
"The biggest thing I take issue with is calling this a pilot project," said Marianne Cufone, an environmental attorney and executive director of Recirculating Farms. " "I get it’s meant to be a test for open water finfish farming in the gulf, but the volume of fish is appalling for a pilot project, it's more like industrial farming.”
Cufone said she doesn't understand how there could be no impact with a large operation, and Templeton expressed concerns that moving forward with Velella Epsilon would open the door for larger farms.
Because there is not any fish farming going on in the United States' federal waterways, Templeton said, "this is prying open the door for the industry."
Cufone said she and others are challenging NOAA regulations approved for the Gulf of Mexico. She is asking the court to invalidate what NOAA did, claiming the agency is outside its jurisdiction.
"This is meant to be a tester for future industrial-scale projects," she said. "It's not a secret this project is meant to open the door to fish farms in the Gulf of Mexico."
Sims said this project is "about nurturing what we want out of the ocean and figuring out how to do this."
"We would expect that going forward any commercial project will have monitoring requirements," he said. "We think that it's important to share that info with the public."
To Sims, offshore aquaculture is an opportunity.
"We are scientists and conservationists," he said. "There is an economic incentive to drive the ecological imperative: We need to be getting more food from the sea."
Karl Schneider is an environment reporter at Naples Daily News. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @karlstartswithk, email him at email@example.com