The proposed aquaculture facility in the Gulf of Mexico meets with opposition from environmentalists in Sarasota

The proposed aquaculture facility in the Gulf of Mexico meets with opposition from environmentalists in Sarasota

Back in 2016, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration finalized a work in progress plan for the construction of aquaculture facilities in areas of the Gulf of Mexico that are controlled by the federal government. But there was a problem. The regulatory hurdles were so complex that no company wanted to apply for the permits required to build a fish farm – until Ocean Era came along.

The company, based in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, has already developed two federal aquaculture projects that breed Kampachi, a finfish known in the Gulf as the Almaco Jack. In 2017, the company became the first to attempt to start an aquaculture operation in the Gulf when it announced plans for Velella Epsilon, a Kampachi fish house to be built about 40 miles west of Sarasota.

The facility is planned as a pilot project – a small first step that Ocean Era can use to demonstrate that aquaculture can work in the Gulf. The main component of the facility will be one of the company’s aquapods – a huge, floating, spherical pin that will be anchored to the bottom of the gulf. The Aquapod will accommodate 4,000 fish that will be fed five times a day.

“With our experience, we felt a moral obligation to pioneer this area,” said Neil Sims, chief executive officer of Ocean Era. It is triggering a number of urgent environmental crises: rising global temperatures, ocean acidification, bleaching of corals, dwindling freshwater resources and increasing meat consumption. “Most of these things can be addressed by humankind by increasingly turning to marine food sources,” says Sims. “We need to get more of our food out of the sea.”

The National Aquaculture Association estimates that the US imports 90 percent of our seafood, and about half of that comes from farms. Many aquaculture fish are fed fishmeal, which increases the industry’s impact on fish stocks. About a quarter of all fish caught in the wild is used as fish meal to feed other fish. To reduce this footprint, Ocean Era uses a feed made from soy protein concentrate. According to the company, Kampachi fed with 40 percent soybeans are indistinguishable from fish on a normal fish meal diet.

However, a coalition of local and national environmental associations is skeptical of the company’s plans. Sarasota nonprofit Suncoast Waterkeeper has challenged the company in court, and organizations like the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity have joined the opposition.

Kampachi in an ocean time fish pen

They claim that finfish aquaculture is too risky for the Gulf. They warn that existing marine species could be affected by so-called “fish pollution” if fish escape from stables, as well as diseases and parasites that can reproduce on aquaculture farms. Antibiotics and other toxins, as well as sewage from fish feed and waste, can also damage the Gulf, and the growth of aquaculture could also threaten existing commercial fisheries.

“Every time we industrialize our food system, whether on land or in open water, it’s a problem,” says Samantha Gentrup, managing director of Suncoast Waterkeeper. “It’s unnatural.”

Waterkeeper founder Justin Bloom says waste from the facility could worsen the flood. “We’re in an area where we know the red tide is coming and going,” says Bloom. “The amount of nutrients to be produced is significant. This type of nutrient pollution is fuel for the red tide. “

Sims said, while sewage from coastal aquaculture farms can harm the environment, the ocean-time facility will be located far enough offshore for the waste to be dispersed by strong tides and deep water. “They’re only pollutants when they’re really concentrated,” says Sims.

Ocean Era received approval from the Environmental Protection Agency last year, but the Waterkeeper and other organizations are fighting this decision, which is currently under review. In order to build the fish farm, Ocean Era must also obtain approval for its construction plans from the Army Corps of Engineers. A decision on this permit is expected every day. The Waterkeeper and other groups undertake to combat this permit as well, if it is issued.

Gentrup and Bloom warn that Velella Epsilon is only the tip of the iceberg for Gulf aquaculture. “This would open a pipeline for the development of many of these fish farms,” ​​says Bloom.

If Velella Epsilon is successful, Ocean Era plans to expand its golf operations exponentially. According to Sims, the company will evaluate how well the Kampachi are growing in the Gulf and whether Ocean Era can win the commercial and recreational fisheries, which are often skeptical of aquaculture due to the increased competition that aquaculture can bring.

If the results are positive, you can expect to see another farm with up to 2 million fish in the Gulf. According to Sims, this size is an industry standard. “There are certain economies of scale,” he says. “Two thousand tons per year is the minimum for any aquaculture business.”

Other companies can join Ocean Era as well. “By paving this way through the approval process, we want to build an industry,” says Sims. “We don’t want to be just a farm out there.”

Joseph Hubbard

Joseph Hubbard is a seasoned journalist passionate about uncovering stories and reporting on events that shape our world. With a strong background in journalism, he has dedicated his career to providing accurate, unbiased, and insightful news coverage to the public.

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