Public comment period opens for offshore aquaculture in U.S. waters
The federal government has opened a public comment period for offshore fish farming locations with an area in the Gulf of Mexico proposed as one of the first U.S. aquaculture sites.
Offshore aquaculture has been a contentious issue in Southwest Florida as environmental groups worry these facilities add excess nutrients into the ocean.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is holding three listening sessions in concurrence with the 60-day comment period to help the public understand the process.
"NOAA will use best available science combined with stakeholder input when identifying Aquaculture Opportunity Areas (AOAs)," Roy Crabtree, NOAA Fisheries regional administrator, wrote in an email. "The goal is to identify areas that are environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable. This proactive approach has been refined and utilized widely within states and by other countries."
Following President Donald Trump’s executive order in May mandating NOAA identify two areas in federal waters within a year, the agency opened the public comment window Oct. 23.
NOAA is considering the Gulf of Mexico and waters off the coast of Southern California for its first two Aquaculture Opportunity Areas. There is “current industry interest” as well as existing relevant data in these two regions, according to documents filed in the Federal Register.
Once identified and approved, these localized opportunity areas will provide companies the ability to produce offshore fish farming facilities outside of state waters. There currently are no such areas in U.S. waters.
Once the agency has solidified the two areas for offshore fish farms, it has two years to complete a report detailing any effects an aquaculture facility would have. NOAA must then identify two additional areas every four years to keep up with the president’s executive order.
“The areas identified as AOAs will have characteristics that are expected to be able to support multiple aquaculture farm sites of varying types, but all portions of the AOA may not be appropriate for aquaculture or for all types of aquaculture,” the document says.
Various Florida political leaders have supported offshore aquaculture in the Gulf, including Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried, a Democrat, and Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican.
Rubio was a cosponsor of the AQUAA Act, which he said would streamline the rules for aquaculture and promote its responsible and safe success.
“In June, I urged the Administration to designate waters near Florida as one of the first aquaculture opportunity areas,” Rubio said in a statement. “I’m pleased that NOAA has since decided that the Gulf of Mexico will have one of the first of these areas. The public comment period is an important opportunity for Florida’s wealth of expertise to make itself heard about why Florida, and its 1,350 miles of coastline, is uniquely situated for this designation.”
Ocean Era, a Hawai’i-based aquaculture company, is working to obtain permits for what it calls a pilot program about 45 miles off the Sarasota coast. The project, Velella Epsilon, will hold about 20,000 almaco jack in net pens.
Potential land-based alternatives
Fish farming in federal waters does have some groups worried, however, and efforts have been rolled back in other countries with previous offshore programs.
Marianne Cufone, founder and executive director of Recirculating Farms Coalition, said there are more sustainable, environmentally friendly alternatives to offshore farms. Cufone operates a land-based fish farm in New Orleans.
Cufone has been part the group advocating for alternatives to offshore fish farms since around 2008 when the federal government previously tried to develop offshore aquaculture.
“If we really wanted to build a sustainable seafood culture in the U.S. in addition to wild capture, we thought that land-based recirculating farming was a good alternative,” she said.
These recirculating farms can grow a variety of seafood as well as hydroponic plants, she said. The water in these types of farms is recycled and reused, creating what Cufone said was a highly efficient and eco-friendly way to produce seafood.
“We avoid a lot of the risks that are a concerned with offshore farming,” she said. “Fish won’t escape, we’re not using public space for private profit nor do we need runoff solutions for the farms because it’s a mostly contained system.”
Providing public input
While NOAA isn’t seeking input on alternatives to offshore aquaculture, there are 12 topics members of the public can address ranging from questions about the types of fish in offshore farms, overlapping areas of protected species habitat and areas to be avoided because of harmful algal blooms. A full list can be found in the Federal Register.
After the public comment period, NOAA's next steps will be to develop areas based on the comments, spatial analysis and interagency discussion, Crabtree wrote. Identifying these areas is a planning process and will not change any current state or federal permitting processes.
"NOAA intends to seek additional public input on these possible AOAs through the programmatic National Environmental Policy Act process that will begin in May 2021," he wrote.
The administration is holding two national listening sessions and one specifically about the Gulf of Mexico. The webinars can be accessed on NOAA’s website. The session for the Gulf of Mexico AOA will take place Nov. 17 from 1-3 p.m.
Members of the public who want to submit comments must do so by Dec. 22.
“Designating Florida’s waters as one of the first aquaculture opportunity areas would be a positive step towards pursuing a more resilient domestic food supply chain,” Rubio said in the statement.
Karl Schneider is an environment reporter. Connect with him via email at email@example.com or on Twitter: @karlstartswithk