Army Corps of Engineers extends to Nov. 19 comment period regarding permit for ‘fish farm’ planned off Sarasota County coastline

Corps spokeswoman says members of public may request formal hearing on permit, but they must provide specific reasons

Kampachi fish swim inside an Ocean Era net pen. Image from the Ocean Era website

The Jacksonville District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has extended its deadline for comments on the permit that a company called Ocean Era needs from the federal agency to create a “fish farm” pilot project off the Sarasota County coastline, the USACE has announced.

Instead of the original deadline of Nov. 4, the new date is Nov. 19, the USACE pointed out in a document issued on Oct. 22. “Due to a technical issue,” the public notice said, “the Corps became aware that the comment email mailbox, VEAquaculture@usace.army.mil, was not receiving external emails.”

The notice added, “If you previously sent comments to [that email address], please resend those comments as soon as possible. You will receive an email response confirming receipt of your comments.”

The USACE then apologized “for this inconvenience.”

In response to a Sarasota News Leader question about the need for the extension, USACE spokeswoman Nakeir L. Nobles in Jacksonville wrote in a Nov. 4 email, “The public comment period has been extended an additional 15 days or until November 19, 2020 in order to provide for a full 30-day comment period window as required by federal regulation. Regulatory staff within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District were working other items and didn’t initially notice that emails weren’t being received during the first two weeks of the comment period. When the email address created specifically for this project was checked on October 20, staff discovered the issue and worked with our IT team to remedy the issue.”

The new notice also points out, “Any person may request a public hearing. The request must be submitted in writing to the [USACE] District Engineer within the designated comment period … and must state the specific reasons for requesting the public hearing.”

When the News Leader asked Nobles about that statement, she explained, “The decision to have a hearing is not solely determined by the number of comments received. Hearings may be held to acquire additional information in connection with a permit application, if deemed necessary. The Corps may conduct a hearing or participate in joint public hearings with other Federal or state agencies ([The Environmental Protection Agency] conducted a hearing on this proposed project in January 2020). At the end of the public notice comment period, a decision will be made if a public hearing will be held and all requesting parties will be notified of the decision in writing. Any person may request a public hearing in writing during the comment period specified in the public notice. Specific reasons must be given as to the need for a hearing.”

The same email address may be used for the district engineer as for comments, the USACE notice indicates. Anyone wishing to send a request or comments in writing may use this mailing address, the notice adds: Tampa Permits Section, 10117 Princess Palm Avenue, Suite 120, Tampa, FL 33610-8302.

The notice emphasizes that email is preferred.

A diver swims outside a net pen containing fish. Image courtesy SeafoodSource.com

Both the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce and the Siesta Key Condominium Council have been among organizations that have alerted their members to the deadline extension.

In the meantime, on Oct. 30, a number of nonprofit organizations announced that they had filed an appeal of the decision of the EPA to issue a permit to Ocean Era of Hawaii— formerly Kampachi Farms — for what has been dubbed the Velella Epsilon project.

In their news release — issued by the Don’t Cage Our Ocean Coalition — the nonprofits contend that the EPA’s permit will allow the facility to dump untreated wastewater directly into the surrounding ecosystems.

Among the groups filing the appeal are the Suncoast Waterkeeper, which is based in Sarasota; Center for Food Safety; Recirculating Farms Coalition; Friends of the Earth; Food & Water Watch; Healthy Gulf; and Tampa Bay Waterkeeper. They argue that the permit violates the Clean Water Act (CWA), the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

In their Oct. 30 announcement, the groups provided the following statement:

“This permit should never have been issued. The EPA violated the law by failing to evaluate the potential dangers of the wastewater that this facility will release, such as contributing to harmful algal blooms (also often known as red tide) and pharmaceutical residues in the ocean and antibiotic resistance in people. By allowing this facility to pollute, the EPA has failed to protect the vulnerable Gulf ecosystem and the communities that rely on it. This needs to stop.”

An EPA fact sheet about Velella Epsilon project points out, “Aquaculture facilities produce and discharge wastes (excess fish feed and fecal material) that contain pollutants, which are defined as solid waste, biological materials, and industrial waste.”

This chart in the Environmental Assessment prepared by the EPA and the USACE for Velella Epsilon provides details about commercial fish food. Image courtesy EPA

The proposal and the USACE permit

In its original notice providing for public comments regarding the permit Ocean Era is seeking from it, the USACE explains that the Velella Epsilon site would be approximately 45 miles west/southwest of Longboat Pass. A metal net pen would be placed in the Gulf of Mexico at a depth of approximately 130 feet. Ocean Era’s goal with the project, the USACE added, is
“to demonstrate the potential for future open ocean aquaculture systems in the Gulf of Mexico.”

The USACE notice also pointed out, “The proposed area is located on a portion of the west Florida Shelf that is heavily trawled by the shrimp fishing industry. Additionally, large portions of the west Florida Shelf are designated as military special use airspace. To avoid user conflicts in this area, [Ocean Era] coordinated closely with the military and the shrimping industry during the site selection process.”

A map in the draft Environmental Assessment for the project shows the location of the proposed fish farm. Image courtesy EPA

Ocean Era needs what is known as a “Section 10 permit” from the USACE, the notice explains. Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act (RHA), which was approved on March 3, 1899, “prohibits the unauthorized obstruction or alteration of any navigable water of the United States (U.S.),” the notice continues. “The construction of any structure in or over any navigable water of the U.S., the excavating from or depositing of material in such waters, or the accomplishment of any other work affecting the course, location, condition, or capacity of such waters,” the notice says, “is unlawful unless the work has been recommended by the Chief of Engineers and authorized by the Secretary of the Army.”

The notice also points out that 20,000 almaco jack (Seriola rivoliana) fingerlings would be reared in the net pen. They would be provided by Mote Marine Laboratory of Sarasota.

Further, the notice says, “The VE [Velella Epsilon] Project has been proposed … to support, promote, and invigorate marine aquaculture in the [Gulf of Mexico] by directly addressing the constraints, barriers, or hurdles, and often misperceptions of, U.S. domestic aquaculture development that currently limit increased production. The VE Project will provide information on data collection related to growth of a federally managed species in the offshore environment and information on open ocean aquaculture systems that can be used to inform other pilot-scale and commercial-scale operations, seafood product development, and market research.”

This chart in the Environmental Assessment for Velella Epsilon provides information about species that could be affected by Velella Epsilon. Image courtesy EPA

Participants in a Sept. 30 virtual public hearing conducted by the Don’t Cage Our Ocean Coalition, including Friends of the Earth, stressed the potential of the fish farm to spur red tide blooms. Among the speakers that day, Sarasota Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch noted the damage to the county’s economy from the last major red tide bloom, which began in the fall of 2017 and did not end until early 2019. Ahearn-Koch put the estimate at $96.4 million, as tourists rapidly cancelled reservations at county accommodations after seeing photos and videos of dead fish littering the county’s shoreline. The deaths of mammals, including dolphins, and sea turtles also were linked to the effects of the red tide algae, Karenia brevis.

Other opponents of the fish farm project have voiced fears that a hurricane could damage the pen, leading to the release of the fish into the Gulf. That could result in their breeding with wild almaco jack, with unknown consequences, those persons have pointed out.

This year, multiple hurricanes have swept through the Gulf of Mexico, and many have intensified before landfall.

Facets of the net pen design and anchoring

This graphic in the Environmental Assessment provides details about the net pen and its anchoring system. Image courtesy EPA

The USACE notice further explains, “The project would involve the temporary anchoring of a marine aquaculture system consisting of one (1) tender/support vessel, one (1) offshore-strength net pen, mooring and marker buoys, and the associated multi-anchor swivel (MAS) mooring system with three (3) 3-ton drag embedded anchors,” the notice continues. “The proposed aquaculture system would be deployed for one (1) period of 12-18 months, which will represent one production cycle including a 12-month rearing timeframe and 6 months for initial cage deployment and water quality and benthic sampling, time between stocking and harvesting, and the removal of gear at the project conclusion.”

The notice adds, “The net pen material for the proposed project is constructed with rigid and durable materials (copper mesh net with a diameter of 4-millimeter (mm) wire and 40 mm by 40 mm mesh square). The mooring lines for the proposed project would be constructed of steel chain (50mm thick) and thick rope (36mm) that would be attached to a floating net pen and would rotate in the prevailing current direction; the floating net pen position would be influenced by the ocean currents to maintain the mooring rope and chain under tension at all times during operation. The bridle line that connects from the swivel to the cage would be encased in a rigid pipe.”

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