EPA’s Region 4 staff stands by permit for Ocean Era ‘fish farm’ planned off Sarasota County coast

Federal Environmental Appeals Board had called for status report on the issue, in light of change in Presidential administrations

The EPA’s Region 4 office is located in Atlanta. Image from Google Maps

The Region 4 staff of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains that the permit issued for a proposed “fish farm” off the Sarasota County coast is reflective of the “Agency’s coordinated views.”

The May 28 document says the Region 4 staff “consulted with the Agency’s Office of the General Counsel and Office of Water (including incoming Agency officials) …”

Region 4 was responding to a request this spring from the federal Environmental Appeals Board for a status report on the permit issued to a Hawaii-based company, Ocean Era, which formally was known as Kampachi Farms.

“[B]ecause of the small size of the permitted facility and the short duration of its permitted operation, [the EPA] does not find that this matter raises difficult issues or issues of national significance,” the status report added of Ocean Era’s proposed net-pen aquaculture project.

This is an example of an Ocean Era net-farm. Image from Ocean Era

The report does note that the Environmental Appeals Board had sought the assessment of the permit because the Ocean Era facility in the Gulf of Mexico “is novel, and that the permit appears to present ‘issues of national significance concerning the application of the [federal Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act] to offshore aquaculture facilities.”

Additionally, the May 28 document says, the EPA does not believe oral arguments are necessary in regard to the legal challenges that 10 environmental and public interest groups filed last year after the EPA issued the permit to Ocean Era.

Nonetheless, the report says, the EPA “supports the scheduling of oral argument to the extent that the [Environmental Appeals Board] has questions and/or finds that oral argument will aid in its decision-making.”

The document was signed by Paul Schwartz, counsel for Region 4.

Based in Atlanta, Region 4 handles issues in the Southeastern United States.

The Environmental Appeals Board (EAB) had given the EPA until June 1 to submit the report. The EAB called for the analysis on Feb. 17, noting that a new Presidential Administration was in office and that President Joe Biden had issued an Executive Order requiring a review of past EPA actions. The Board also noted in its order that the proposed “aquaculture facility would be the first of its kind to operate and discharge in federal waters of the eastern Gulf of Mexico.”

As its website explains, the EAB “is the final [EPA] decision maker on administrative appeals under all major environmental statutes that the Agency administers.”

In response to the May 28 report, Adam Kreger, an attorney representing Friends of Animals, told The Sarasota News Leader in a June 1 statement, “Friends of Animals is disappointed that EPA has not changed its position regarding the first proposed aquaculture facility in the federal waters of the United States. As EPA’s own appeals board stated, the proposed facility is novel, and it presents issues of national significance. That is one of the reasons why the appeals board ordered EPA to review its stance on the matter.”

Kreger added, “Friends of Animals still believes this facility should not move forward, as it violates multiple federal statutes. As it is currently planned, the facility will dump massive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus into the open ocean. These two substances are the two main nutrients that contribute to harmful algal blooms such as red tides, which have devastated Florida’s coast near Sarasota. No facility should be allowed to pollute our oceans and harm marine wildlife, especially not in sensitive areas like the Gulf Coast.”

The Don’t Cage Our Ocean coalition also provided a statement to the News Leader: “The Don’t Cage Our Ocean Coalition is extremely disappointed by the EPA’s recent status report indicating a continued push forward with the Velella Epsilon finfish aquaculture project in the Gulf of Mexico, off the Florida coast. This is just the latest indication that the Biden administration will continue to advance reckless policies established under President Trump to rush development of harmful industrial aquaculture facilities in US waters. This ignores science and pushes forward an unnecessary, and unpopular industry that worldwide is tied to environmental damage in marine ecosystems, and economic harm for fishing and coastal communities. Other countries like Denmark and Canada are moving away from this form of seafood production. For the U.S. to continue promoting expansion of this industry is both irresponsible and confusing, given the administration’s promises to utilize science and support conservation.”

These are the members of the Don’t Cage Our Ocean coalition. Image from the website

In one appeal filed in October 2020, nine environmental or public interest organizations joined together in seeking to overturn the issuance of the EPA permit for the Velella Epsilon pilot project. The Suncoast Waterkeeper, based in Sarasota, was among them.

Those organizations maintain that the EPA “has consistently failed to evaluate the totality of the project it authorized under the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System Permit [NPDES] …”

They also contended in a Feb. 1 brief that the EPA assessed only some of the pollutants that Velella Epsilon would be expected to discharge, and they argued that the agency failed to assess others “in accordance with the mandatory factors required by the [U.S. Clean Water Act’s] implementing regulations.”

The NPDES permit would allow Ocean Era to anchor a copper mesh pen at a depth of 130 feet in the Gulf of Mexico. That pen would contain about 20,000 almaco jack fish, a variety of longfin yellowtail, the EPA explains.

A map in the Environmental Assessment for the Ocean Era project shows the location of the proposed net pen in the Gulf of Mexico. Image courtesy EPA

“Aquaculture facilities produce and discharge wastes (excess fish feed and fecal material) that contain pollutants, which are defined as including solid waste, biological materials, and industrial waste,” an EPA fact sheet explains. “Accordingly, marine finfish aquaculture operations are point sources that discharge pollutants and are required to obtain NPDES permits.”

Friends of the Animals filed its appeal separately last year. That nonprofit acknowledged that the Aquaculture Act of 1980 provided “guidance for land-based factory farms for fish,” but “aquaculture located offshore [emphasis in the document], in open waters, is entirely new. In fact, the [Velella Epsilon] Project would be the first of its kind in any federal waters of the contiguous United States.”

Ocean Era also needs a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to conduct the pilot project.

In response to a News Leader request for an update on the status of that permit process, Nakeir L. Nobles, a spokeswoman for the USACE at its Jacksonville District Office, wrote in a June 1 email, “The Corps has not made a permit decision to date. The project is still under review and there is not currently an estimated permit issuance date.”

The Ocean Era stance

During a Jan. 28, 2020 public hearing that the EPA conducted at a Mote Marine Laboratory facility in Sarasota, prior to issuing the permit, Mary Walker, the Region 4 administrator, explained to the audience that the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System — or, NPDES — permit “is the basic tool that EPA uses for controlling discharges of water pollution. The Clean Water Act,” she pointed out, “requires that NPDES permits include pollutant limits and conditions necessary to protect water quality.”

Walker added that the primary sources of pollutants that would be associated with the Velella Epsilon project would be “uneaten fish feed, fish feces from the fish being raised, and drugs used at the site to treat certain diseases. … The NPDES permit includes a comprehensive environmental monitoring plan that requires monitoring for water quality parameters as well as sediment and biological sampling both up- and down-current of the facility,” she said.

Among the speakers at that event was Dennis Peters, manager and permit coordinator for the Ocean Era project.

These are the proposed coordinates for the Velella Epsilon project area. Image courtesy EPA

“The Velella Epsilon,” he told the audience, “will validate the feasibility of the single, temporary small-scale demonstration net pen to conduct comprehensive environmental monitoring of water quality, benthic analysis per EPA and core requirements, while addressing public concerns of offshore open-ocean aquaculture in the Gulf by encouraging [the] public and tourists to visit the demonstration site for themselves.”

Peters noted that the company had worked with “representatives of multiple federal and state agencies, as well as with commercial and recreational fisheries and other user groups of the ocean,” as it planned the undertaking. As part of those efforts, he continued, the company had considered 18 initial sites in the vicinity of Sarasota County before settling on the one outlined in its EPA permit application.

He emphasized that Velella Epsilon would be “just one temporary demonstration project.”

Neil Sims is CEO of Ocean Era. Image from his LinkedIn account

However, in a May 10 Sarasota Magazine article written by Senior Editor Cooper Levey-Baker, Neil Sims, Ocean Era’s CEO, said that if Velella Epsilon proves to be a success, Ocean Era wants to expand “its Gulf operation exponentially.”

Sims added that the public could expect to see another farm with as many as 2 million fish in the Gulf.

“‘There are certain economies of scale,’” he told Levey-Baker. “‘Two thousand tons a year is the minimum for any aquaculture operation.’

“Other companies may also join Ocean Era,” Levey-Baker wrote. “‘By blazing this trail through the permitting process, we want to build an industry,’ says Sims. ‘We don’t want to just be one farm out there.’”

1 thought on “EPA’s Region 4 staff stands by permit for Ocean Era ‘fish farm’ planned off Sarasota County coast”

  1. This is simply outrageous. We have had hearings, written letters, given public comments at hearings and all for nothing. Why even pretend to listen to local comments? These organizations will destroy our environment without a care. When is enough enough?

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