As Venice rally participants demand EPA require new permitting process for ‘fish farm’ planned off county coast, county commissioner urges his colleagues to be cautious of potential environmental damage

Founder of Ocean Era details proposed changes in pilot aquaculture program

A June 13 rally at a Venice park underscored not only the continuing local opposition but also national objections to plans for an aquaculture project — an industrial “fish farm” — that would be installed in the Gulf of Mexico off the Sarasota County coastline.

As The Sarasota News Leader has reported, a Hawaii-based company called Ocean Era — formerly Kampachi Farms — won a permit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in June 2022 to proceed with a pilot project called Velella Epsilon in which the company would raise market-size almaco jack, which is a variety of longfin yellowtail fish.

However, with a company leader having informed the EPA recently about the need to change key parts of its proposal, opponents are calling for the federal agency to require Ocean Era to obtain a new permit.

As noted in a news release issued this week by the Suncoast Waterkeeper, which is based in Sarasota, Justin Bloom, founder and member of that nonprofit’s board, stated, “Notwithstanding the major changes to the project proposal, this permit is flawed and not adequately protective of the environment and our coastal communities that rely on clean and healthy waters. The new changes are tantamount to an entirely new project and make it clear that the permitting agencies should require a new permit proposal.”

During the rally, the release added, Larry Allan, a member of the Steering Committee of the Manatee-Sarasota Sierra Club and a wildlife photographer, said, “It’s not aquaculture I oppose in general, but the proposed placement of this project — no matter what kind of fish or what kind of open cage — just off-shore from an area plagued with annual red tide blooms makes absolutely no sense for anyone.”

Shortly before the rally began this week, County Commissioner Mark Smith mentioned the event to his colleagues during his report as part of their regular meeting the same day, which also took place in Venice.

“Even though this isn’t a county permitting issue,” Smith said, “it is a Sarasota County issue …”

“I believe we should be very cautious in allowing any type of aquaculture [operation] off our coast,” he added.
Officially, the permit that Ocean Era received from the EPA allows it to discharge pollution into the Gulf. Smith alluded to that, referencing the feed that would be given to the fish and their waste, both of which could help fuel future red tide events.

“Everything that’s off our coast ends up on our coast,” he pointed out.

Since he was elected to the board just a few months ago — in November 2022 — he added that he was not certain whether the commission ever had taken a position on the Ocean Era plans. If not, he indicated, the board members should take a serious look at the potential ramifications of the proposed pilot program.

To the knowledge of The Sarasota News Leader, the County Commission never has taken a position on the Ocean Era proposal. However, in February 2020, the City of Sarasota sent a letter to the EPA, expressing “strong and formal opposition to the [Ocean Era] project,” as then-Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch noted during a Sept. 30, 2020 virtual hearing focused on fish farming in the Gulf of Mexico in general, along with the Ocean Era plans.

The change in plans

In a May 10 letter to the EPA’s Region 4 office, in Atlanta, Neil Anthony Sims, founder of Ocean Era, explained that he needed to change the species of fish for the pilot aquaculture program, which has been christened Velella Epsilon.

Instead of almaco jack, Sims wrote, the project would use red drum. That switch was related to the second modification of the permit that the company was seeking, he explained.

The 2022 permit notes that Ocean Era had specified that it would use a swivel-point mooring system; instead, it needs to use a grid mooring system, Sims said in his letter. The company also plans to use a different variety of net pen, Sims explained.

The mooring design “for the proposed SeaProtean Pen,” he wrote, would use eight anchors embedded in the floor of the Gulf, instead of three, as planned for the original design.

The InnovaSea website explains, “The SeaProtean Pen is an affordable submersible fish pen designed for sites that experience occasional weather events, such as strong storms or surface currents. Made from high-density polyethylene, it features a unique three-stage buoyancy chamber for smooth, steady movement when raising and lowering. This prevents fish stocks from experiencing barotrauma and gives operators the precision needed to find the ideal thermocline to maximize fish health.”

The National Library of Medicine says, “Barotrauma is physical tissue damage caused by a pressure difference between an unvented space inside the body and surrounding gas or fluid. The damage is due to shear or overstretching of tissues.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines “thermocline” as “the transition layer between warmer mixed water at the ocean’s surface and cooler deep water below.”

The smallest commercially available SeaProtean pen — which Ocean Era plans to use, Sims continued — is 26.5 meters in diameter. The permitted pen would have been 17 meters in diameter.

Additionally, Sims wrote, the permitted net pen would have been made of a “copper alloy wire woven into chain-link fence mesh.” The SeaProtean pen, he pointed out, is made of an ultraviolet light-stabilized, “extremely strong and lightweight … PET monofilament, woven into a double twisted hexagonal mesh.”

Sims added, “There is no functional difference between the two materials, in terms of entanglement risk or other concerns.”

The Britannica website explains that PET is “a strong, stiff synthetic fibre and resin and a member of the polyester family of polymers.”

“No change in location or water depth” is planned, Sims pointed out in the letter. That depth would be about 130 feet.

In regard to the species of fish, Sims explained that Ocean Era has had previous success “with multiple pilot and demonstration operations culturing almaco jack …” However, he continued, that “was based in part on the use of the [swivel-point mooring system] as a fundamental best management practice (BMP) for effectively eliminating [a] skin fluke issue.”

The Chilean company that had agreed to provide the original mooring system for Velella Epsilon “met with financial difficulties,” Sims noted; it ceased operations about five years ago.

“Since that time, the Ocean Era team has pursued numerous other U.S. and European manufacturers who might be willing and able to design, engineer, and construct a similar net pen system,” he continued. None had been identified to date, he added.

Without the swivel-point mooring system, Sims pointed out, “[T]here is a very strong likelihood that almaco jack originally proposed for the [Velella Epsilon] VE Project would become infested with skin flukes. This would then require either a therapeutic bath treatment (hydrogen peroxide as a standard operating procedure for the commercial almaco jack operations), or the early harvest of the fish. Neither of these options represent a good demonstration of offshore aquaculture’s potential,” he wrote. “Therapeutic bath treatments would also be impractical, given the need for specialized equipment and an experienced team to undertake the process. Further, the VE permits all specifically state that the project will not use any therapeutants in the offshore growout operations.”

Moreover, Sims explained, Mote Marine Laboratory of Sarasota had planned to provide the almaco jack fingerlings for Velella Epsilon. However, he wrote, Mote suffered a power failure during a recent hurricane — apparently Hurricane Ian, which struck Southwest Florida in September 2022. That resulted in “the total loss” of its almaco jack broodstock. “While newly -captured wild broodstock could certainly be obtained,” Sims continued, “this would then mandate a minimum of 6 to 12 months to condition new broodstock for spawning. Mote also has faced challenges with the almaco jack larvae,” in terms of poor egg viability and low larval survival, he wrote.

On the other hand, Sims continued, “Red drum are considered highly successful candidates for offshore culture in the Gulf of Mexico. Fingerlings for this species are readily and abundantly available from several Florida hatcheries throughout the region. There is an existing pond-based aquaculture industry for red drum in Texas, and a large market and strong demand for the product.”

He also noted, “There are no reported health issues (i.e., skin flukes) with red drum in offshore culture systems, and thus no need for a [swivel-point mooring] net pen system as a [best management practice].”

Then Sims wrote, “No appreciable changes in fish production numbers are anticipated. As permitted, a total of 20,000 fingerlings would be stocked. With anticipated 85% survival, a total of 17,000 fish would be harvested in 10 to 12 months. Since red drum grow more slowly than almaco jack, fish size at harvest would be approximately 2.75 pounds (lbs) vs. the permitted size of 4.4 lbs. This smaller fish size equates to a total harvest of 46,750 lbs vs. the permitted harvest of 74,800 lbs. Red drum require a lower protein feed than almaco jack and therefore the nitrogen loading in effluent water would be markedly reduced. This means that potential scale of impacts on the surrounding environment would be lessened.”

Nitrogen has been identified as one of the primary sources of “food” for the red tide algae, Karenia brevis.

As of the May 10 date of his letter, Sims noted that he expected it would take up to 30 days to submit a formal request to the EPA for the modification of the Velella Epsilon permit.

The other side of the issue

An attorney for nonprofit organizations that have been opposed to the Velella Epsilon plans responded to the Ocean Era news in a June 7 letter to EPA officials at the Region 4 office in Atlanta.

William S. Eubanks III, owner and managing attorney for Eubanks & Associates of Washington, D.C., wrote that he was representing the Suncoast Waterkeeper, Food & Water Watch, the Recirculating Farms Coalition, the Center for Food Safety, the Sierra Club, Healthy Gulf and the Tampa Bay Waterkeeper.

His clients, he pointed out, “have a pending lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that challenges various actions and omissions by the EPA [in regard to the agency’s permitting of the Velella Epsilon project]. However, we recently agreed to stay that litigation for 90 days while EPA considers how to proceed” after Sims of Ocean Era sent his May 10 letter to the agency.

“Although Ocean Era self-servingly asserts that ‘[n]o appreciable changes in fish production numbers are anticipated’ and ‘[o]nly minor changes in the submersible net pen design are anticipated,’ it is incumbent on EPA to independently scrutinize the project proponent’s representations and conduct a thorough examination of any new impact that could result from these notable changes. Indeed,” Eubanks continued, “under any metric, it is impossible to conclude that the alterations to arguably the two most important variables for an offshore aquaculture facility somehow constitute ‘minor modifications,’ which are limited to truly minor alterations such as correcting typographical errors or noting a change in ownership.” He referenced a section of the Code of Federal Regulations, which “is the codification of the general and permanent rules published in the Federal Register by the departments and agencies of the Federal Government,” as the GovInfo website explains.

Therefore, Eubanks continued, the nonprofit organizations are calling upon the EPA “to exert its jurisdiction and authority under the Clean Water Act” to revoke the Ocean Era permit in its entirety, “in light of Ocean Era’s explicit admission that it will not — indeed, as a practical matter, it cannot [emphasis in the letter] — implement the project as currently permitted.”

Again, he cited a section of the Code of Federal Regulations as the basis for his request.

Eubanks stressed that the EPA “never considered the impacts of, or alternatives to, either the use of red drum or a grid mooring system. Thus, in order to avoid an almost literal bait-and-switch, it is imperative that EPA provide the public with a transparent, new permit [decision-making] process on the basis of Ocean Era’s new proposal, accompanied by compliance with the full suite of applicable laws including the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Endangered Species Act. In the absence of such compliance,” he added, “EPA’s action will be highly vulnerable to additional legal challenges for failing, again, to adhere to our nation’s bedrock laws for protecting the marine environment.”

At the minimum, Eubanks pointed out, the EPA “must reopen its permitting process with respect to the new aspects of the proposal … and ensure that those issues are properly subjected to supplemental analysis under applicable laws and an accompanying, full public process.”