Nonprofit environmental organizations engaged in appeal of EPA permit for project
The staff of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has yet to determine whether the agency will conduct a public hearing on the application for a permit to install a “fish farm” off the Sarasota County coast, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.
“We received over 1,000 comments, which were all similar in nature or the result of a mass mailing,” Nakeir Nobles, a USACE spokeswoman with the Jacksonville District Office, wrote in a Jan. 7 email, responding to a News Leader inquiry.
In early October 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued the permit the Hawaii-based company Ocean Era had applied for from that federal organization to pursue the pilot project. Several nonprofit organizations have appealed that decision, the Environmental Appeals Board (EAB) website shows. Among them is the Suncoast Waterkeeper, which is based in Sarasota.
In the most recent development in that case, the petitioners received approval from the EAB to take more time to file a response to the EPA’s reply brief. The nonprofits were due to submit their response by Jan. 4. However, the extension gave them until Jan. 31, the order says.
Not only did the EPA conduct a public hearing in Sarasota in January 2020 as it considered whether to grant the permit to Ocean Era, but it also accepted further comments for a period of time after that event. Sixty-seven people pre-registered to speak during the hearing. Altogether, the EPA received more than 9,000 comments, the News Leader learned from EPA spokeswoman Dawn Harris-Young.
The USACE, too, allowed online comments about the Ocean Era plans to place 20,000 almaco jack in a metal net approximately 130 feet deep in the Gulf of Mexico, about 45 miles west/southwest of Longboat Pass. The project has been dubbed Velella Epsilon.
In its public notice about the comment period, the USACE wrote, “Please note that the Corps only has the authority to evaluate the proposed action pursuant to Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act (RHA) approved March 3, 1899, (33 U.S.C. 403) (hereinafter referred to as Section 10). … Section 10 prohibits the unauthorized obstruction or alteration of any navigable water of the United States (U.S.). 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 is unlawful unless the work has been recommended by the Chief of Engineers and authorized by the Secretary of the Army.”
The aquaculture facility would be the first to operate in federal waters of the eastern Gulf. In April 2019, the USACE, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Marine Fisheries Service released a draft Environmental Assessment (EA) of the Ocean Era plans, on which they had collaborated, with the EPA taking the lead. The EA acknowledges that the “significance of any impacts to the environment from such a facility is not known.”
The EPA permit formally authorizes Ocean Era to discharge wastewater from an aquatic animal production facility producing up to 80,000 pounds per year, according to the EPA fact sheet accompanying the permit decision. The maximum amount of feed given to the fish each month has been estimated at 27,268, the EPA fact sheet points out.
Details Ocean Era submitted about Velella Epsilon say each of the fish is expected to achieve a size of approximately 4.4 pounds.
Opponents of the project contend that it could exacerbate conditions in the Gulf of Mexico that contribute to red tide. Sarasota leaders have pointed to the millions of dollars of economic damage that resulted from the last major red tide event, which began in the fall of 2018 and did not conclude until early 2019.
Red tide worries arose again in the latter part of 2020, with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) ramping up its reporting of sampling showing the red tide algae, Karenia brevis, present at varying levels along the Southwest Florida coast.
In its Jan. 6 update, FWC noted that, over the past week, Karenia brevis “was observed at background to very low concentrations in Charlotte County (in 6 samples), background to high concentrations in Lee County (in 14 samples), and medium to high concentrations in Collier County (in 5 samples).”
The algae has been observed at levels off and on ranging from background to low concentrations in Sarasota County since October 2020.
Other opponents of Velella Epsilon have voiced concerns about the increasing number of hurricanes that have traversed the Gulf in recent years, with the 2020 season breaking records for storms. Environmentalists have talked of the potential for a tropical system to damage the pen and release the fish into the wild, which likely would lead to the breeding of those fish with their wild counterparts, with unknown consequences.
The opposition to the project has been widespread. For example, after the EPA issued its permit, Rosanna Marie Neil, policy counsel for the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, pointed out in an email, “Fishing businesses in the region that are already struggling will now have to navigate more restricted access to public waters, potential damage to wild fish populations, and the implications of farmed fish saturating the market.”
Taking a different view
On the other side of the issue, one of the speakers at the Jan. 28, 2020 EPA hearing, conducted at a Mote Marine Laboratory facility on City Island, was a recreational fisherman with a background in agriculture named Douglas Smith. He pointed out that aquaculture relies “on clean water for healthy fish and an economic business model. Therefore, the collapse of the local environment also leads to the collapse of the aquaculture industry in the way of the economy.”
Smith also noted, “The United States imports 90% of its seafood and 50% of that seafood is farm-raised in environments that are beyond the jurisdiction of the United State. It is important that the United States promote responsible forms of aquaculture within its jurisdiction to meet the current growing demand for the seafood in the United States.”
Ocean Era’s website says that the company — formally known as Kampachi Farms — “will remain on the cutting edge of healthy, environmentally responsible seafood” through “innovative research and application of the best available science.”
Another speaker on Jan. 28, 2020 — Joseph Davis, who said he lives “on the small bay that empties into Tampa Bay” and has more than 25 years of experience as an attorney and a senior manager of a federal agency — talked of his careful reading of the draft EPA Environmental Assessment for Velella Epsilon. He said that the EPA permit requires ongoing monitoring and reporting standards, “as well as a provision that allows the EPA to reopen and modify the permit if unexpected issues arise in the process.”
The Velella Epsilon project, Davis further noted, is expected to be in place only about a year, as it is a pilot program.