Hours before EPA issues permit for ‘fish farm’ off coast of Sarasota County, opponents decry Army Corps of Engineers’ refusal to hold public hearing on permit company needs from it for project

Army Corps spokeswoman tells News Leader no timeline has been set for that agency’s decision on its permit

Editor’s note: This article was updated late in the afternoon of Oct. 2 to include information about another group that helped host the Sept. 30 hearing.

This is an example of an Ocean Era net-farm. Image from Ocean Era, previously Kampachi Farms LLC

Because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has been unwilling to conduct a public hearing on a “fish farm” planned about 45 miles west/southwest of Longboat Pass, off the Sarasota County coast, the nonprofit Friends of the Earth and the Don’t Cage Our Ocean Coalition held their own hearing this week regarding the initiative.

Proposed by Ocean Era, the aquaculture facility would be the first to operate in federal waters of the eastern Gulf. In April, the USACE, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Marine Fisheries Service released an 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 Sept. 30 virtual hearing focused on fish farming in the Gulf of Mexico in general, as well as on the application by Ocean Era — formerly Kampachi Farms — for the pilot project, which would involve about 20,000 almaco jack in a metal net approximately 130 feet deep, anchored to the floor of the Gulf. The project has been dubbed Velella Epsilon.

The pen would be deployed on a multi-swivel mooring system, with “three concrete deadweight anchors,” the EA explains. “The mooring lines for the proposed project will be constructed of steel chain [50 millimeters thick] and thick rope [36 millimeters] that are attached to a floating cage that will rotate in the prevailing current direction,” the EA adds. “The CopperNet cage design is flexible and self-adjusts to suit the constantly changing wave and current conditions,” the EA continues.

In announcing the hearing, the Friends of the Earth wrote, “We will not be silenced!” adding, “The attempt to silence stakeholders goes against democracy and existing law, and we won’t stand for it. So we’re taking matters into our own hands to ensure our voices are heard.”

Both the Siesta Key Condominium Council and the Siesta Key Association (SKA) had notified their members of the Sept. 30 event, encouraging them to participate in it.

The comments speakers made on the morning this week, and in prerecorded videos, mirrored many of those provided during a Jan. 28 public hearing at Mote Marine in Sarasota. That event was conducted by representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Ocean Era also sought a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPES) permit from the EPA, which the company had to have before it could proceed, as required by the U.S. Clean Water Act. That permit was granted on Sept. 30, the EPA announced on the evening of Oct. 1. The EPA email alert said, “The final permit, fact sheet, and other supporting documents, including appeal procedures, are all posted on the EPA website at the link below:


The email added, “Please send any questions to R4NPDES.Kampachi@epa.gov.”

(The News Leader learned of the action just before its deadline for this publication.)

The Environmental Assessment (DA) on the project, released in April, explains, “Potential discharges from aquaculture operations include solids, nutrients, ammonia, fish waste, feed waste, pharmaceuticals, chemicals and other industrial animal-processing byproducts.”

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

Participants in the Friends of the Earth/Don’t Cage Our Ocean Coalition virtual hearing on Sept. 30 stressed the potential for the fish farm to spur red tide blooms, leading to degradation of the Gulf and another economic downturn similar to the one that Sarasota County experienced during the last major red tide event, which ended in early 2019 after lasting more than a year.

Speakers also pointed out that the commercial operation of fish farms in the Gulf of Mexico would make those specific areas off limits to individual fishermen and tourists.

Further, several persons talked about the increasing number of hurricanes in the Gulf in recent years, especially this season. Meteorologists have noted the sudden intensification of hurricanes before strikes on Louisiana and the Florida Panhandle in recent weeks, given the intense warmth of the Gulf waters.

A storm could damage the holding pen for the farmed fish, resulting in their release into the wild and their breeding with native fish, speakers emphasized.

This graphic in the Environmental Assessment provides details about the net and mooring system for the ‘fish farm.’ Image courtesy EPA

Hallie Templeton, senior oceans campaigner for Friends of the Earth, told the participants that the nonprofit would forward to the USACE a copy of the recording of the Zoom session, plus transcripts of the testimony provided.

In response to a Sarasota News Leader request for information about when the USACE likely would make its decision on the necessary permit, Nakeir Nobles of the USACE wrote in an Oct. 1 email, “At this time we do not have a tentative decision date.”
Nakeir explained, “We review all permit applications in accordance with the federal regulations that guide our decision-making. Once our review is complete, we will make a permit decision. … The Corps of Engineers is neither a proponent [nor] opponent of any proposed project. Our mission is to provide the regulated public with fair and reasonable decisions while providing protection of the Nation’s aquatic resources and navigation.”

These are the two types of federal permits Ocean Era needs before it can launch the pilot project. Image from the April 2020 Environmental Assessment

United in opposition

Among the Sarasota speakers who participated in the event, Sarasota Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch — in a prerecorded video — pointed out that the City of Sarasota sent a letter to the EPA in February, expressing “strong and formal opposition to the [Ocean Era] project.”

“Our city is extremely sensitive to the ongoing threat of red tide,” she continued. “Adding nitrogen and phosphate to our warm Gulf waters is too risky and dangerous, even on a trial basis,” she said, pointing out that nitrogen would be in the feces of the fish in the pen and that chemicals are in the food that will be provided to the fish.

Both nitrogen and phosphorus have been identified as major sources of food for the red tide algae, Karenia brevis.

Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch makes a statement during the Aug. 17 City Commission meeting. File image

The negative economic impact of the red tide event that began in 2018, Ahearn-Koch pointed out, was estimated at $96.4 million, as tourists stayed away from the county because of widespread images of dead fish, turtles and dolphins on the shoreline.

Another speaker, Jean-Luc Pierite, president of the board of the North American Indian Center of Boston — and a member of the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana — referenced Ahearn-Koch’s comments about the potential that the fish farm could produce harmful algal blooms (HABs) in the Gulf.

“We know that climate change is real,” he said. Nitrogen in the wastewater from the fish pen, he added, “would exacerbate the problem that we’re already facing.”

He also was among speakers who stressed the issue of “increasingly active” hurricane seasons as a threat to the stability of the pen, which could lead to the farm fish being released into the wild.

Another Sarasota resident, Pete Tannen, read a letter he wrote after the EPA hearing in January. Although the Sarasota Herald-Tribune would not print it, he said, the Miami Herald did.

Tannen emphasized the experimental nature of the Ocean Era proposal. “Nothing like this has ever been tried in the shallow waters of the Gulf,” he read, “and as we all know, experiments sometimes fail, in spite of smiling assurances from corporate executives.”

Along with potential problems from hurricanes, Tannen noted in his letter the possibility that fish feces could wash up on Sarasota County beaches.

Since this would be a private venture, Tannen continued, “Shouldn’t [Ocean Era] have to provide, say, $100 million in liability insurance” or set up an escrow account from which it could pay for damages that might result. Why should Florida’s businesses and taxpayers “be on the hook if this fish farm experiment doesn’t work out?”

Margaret Jean Cannon addresses the County Commission in 2017. File photo

Siesta Key Association Director Margaret Jean Cannon, who told the virtual hearing participants she has been in Sarasota more than 25 years, emphasized concerns about red tide blooms, as well. Allowing Ocean Era to establish an experimental fish farm in the Gulf, she said, “doesn’t make any sense,” given the potential for the project to have a deleterious effect on commercial fishing operations that support the tourist industry in the county.

“I’d like to hear more about how the EPA itself is going to protect us,” she continued. “I don’t see it.”

Another Sarasota speaker, Sean Patton, a biologist and candidate for the Group 1 seat of the Sarasota Soil and Water Conservation District, talked of the failure of fish farming initiatives in other parts of the world. Pointing out that the Velella Epsilon project would be the first in the Gulf, he said, “It shouldn’t be the same thing we’ve seen fail time and again. … Pure finfish farming doesn’t work.”

(The Soil and Water Conservation District, a governmental agency, “provides resources on conservation and management for soil, water, and other natural resources,” Patton explains on the Google site for his candidacy.)

Marianne Cufone, executive director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition, pointed out that that nonprofit was founded 16 years ago to highlight environmentally friendly means of feeding people.

The USACE, she said, “should be supporting innovative, sustainable methods of seafood production, along with our existing fishing families. Don’t cage our oceans!”