A proposed fish farm in federal waters is nearing its next regulatory hurdle. On Tuesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will host a public hearing on the proposal at Mote Marine Lab and Aquarium in Sarasota.
Last summer, the EPA issued a draft permit for a pilot aquaculture project in the Gulf of Mexico. The floating fish farm would allow Kampachi Farms of Hawaii to raise 20,000 Almaco jack in a net pen about 45 miles southwest of Sarasota. The fish would be hatched from eggs in tanks on shore at Mote Aquaculture Research Park and transferred to the open ocean pen as fingerlings.
According to a draft submitted to the EPA, the facility would include a supporting vessel and a floating cage in a water depth of 130 feet. States control up to three miles offshore from their coastlines, but between three and 200 miles falls under federal control.
The project is relatively small in size but opponents say it could set a precedent, opening up the country's federally-controlled waterways to fish farming.
"For the most part the environmental community has been opposing this,” said Justin Bloom, Executive Director of Suncoast Waterkeeper. “The regulatory agencies have been proponents of this project yet at the same time they're tasked with regulating the project so that's a big concern."
Groups opposing the proposal, among others, are Hands Along the Water, Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club, and the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance.
Under the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency would have to approve a wastewater discharge permit for Kampachi Farms. The permit will contain limits on what wastes the company can discharge, along with monitoring and reporting requirements.
"Those type of wastes are fish poop but also by-products from this type of facility,” said Bloom. “That would include excess food that they feed the fish which might contain pollutants like antibiotics or pesticides."
All of which he says could find its way into waters adjacent to the proposed fish farm. That is worrisome because of the potential impact on red tide.
"This is a smaller pilot project,” explained Bloom. “I think that mitigates those concerns but one of the really important points to consider here is that this pilot project is an effort to open up this region for much larger scale fish farming. Then I think it's a much more significant concern that it might fuel red tide."
Another issue says Bloom, is the potential impact of captive fish escaping the facility, a scenario he and other environmentalists say is especially concerning in the hurricane-prone Gulf of Mexico.
"When you have a lot of fish that are penned together it's much more likely that they are going to be sick and could have ailments and illness that could spread to native populations or other fish,” said Bloom.
Atlantic salmon farming was banned from Washington state waters after Gov. Jay Inslee signed restrictions on nonnative fish farms into law in 2018.
Meanwhile, Kampachi Farms says that fish farming is a sustainable way to boost the nation's seafood supply. “America needs to begin accepting responsibility for producing our own seafood,” said its CEO, Neil Anthony Sims in an interview with UPI. For years, Americans have increased the amount of fish they eat, the majority of which is imported from overseas waters.