Leaders of national environmental organizations surprised that Biden Administration has not put stop to plans for offshore ‘fish farms’

Latest push for such projects came via Trump Executive Order issued in May 2020

During a period when other countries have been working to shut down offshore “fish farms,” out of concern about the potential for long-lasting environmental damage, federal agencies in the United States have been taking steps to ramp up the establishment of such operations, especially in the Gulf of Mexico.

Although President Joe Biden has countered a number of Trump Administration actions that affected the environment, Biden has not halted efforts of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to promote aquaculture projects in federal waters, Marianne Cufone, an attorney who also is the founder and executive director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition, told The Sarasota News Leader during a recent telephone interview.

“We are shocked that [the offshore aquaculture push] was not one of them,” she added of the Executive Orders Biden has issued since taking office in January 2021 to repeal Trump Administration directives.

Probably hundreds of thousands of public comments made over the decades illustrate “that the public overwhelmingly opposes [offshore aquaculture],” Cufone pointed out.

Attempts to pass bills in Congress promoting such projects have failed repeatedly, she added.

“The backup plan has been trying to create other ways to move forward,” Cufone continued. “It’s unfortunate that [agencies such as NOAA and the USACE] are sort of doing all their loop-de-loops.”

Asked whether employees of federal agencies might have more detailed knowledge than they have made public about the need to supplement the food supply with offshore aquaculture, Cufone told the News Leader, “No.”

“We work directly with the fishing community,” she explained. Owners of many local fishing operations, she pointed out, are committed to sustainable catches.

Further, Cufone said, “People are very capable of creating their own food resources,” as demonstrated by technologies that Recirculating Farms and other environmental organizations promote.

Recirculating Farms’ website says that its coalition “supports building eco-friendly farms that use clean recycled water to grow local, accessible, fresh food and create stable green jobs.”

Cufone is associated, as well, with a group of environmental organizations called the Don’t Cage Our Oceans Coalition.

Fish farms, Cufone pointed out on July 15, are a “largely new and unwanted industry” that would be in conflict with commercial and recreational fishing.

Yet, NOAA, especially, she said, has “been at this for decades. … We are wasting incredible amounts of resources” fighting the proposals.

“Ideally,” she said, “the government would be supporting industries in place instead of undermining them.”

Cufone also told the News Leader, “A lot of [the federal action] has been behind closed doors and quiet.”

The News Leader made multiple attempts to obtain a comment from the Biden Administration on its stance on the USACE’s and NOAA’s actions promoting offshore aquaculture, but this publication had received no response by its deadline for this week’s edition.

“I’ve been at [this] for 20 years,” Cufone told the News Leader. Originally, she explained, she worked with Food & Water Watch, which is based in Washington, D.C. That nonprofit’s website says, “With more than 2 million supporters, Food & Water Watch fights for safe food, clean water, and a livable climate for all of us.

“We protect people from the corporations and other destructive economic interests that put profit ahead of everything else.”

Recirculating Farms was organized after NOAA started pushing for offshore aquaculture, Cufone pointed out. “We were trying to focus on land-based aquaculture. … That is a very different experience.”

In the furtherance of NOAA’s ambitions, Cufone and leaders of other environmental organizations note, President Trump signed an Executive Order in May 2020 with the title Promoting American Seafood Competitiveness and Economic Growth. Section 1 of that document, regarding its purpose, says the following:

“America needs a vibrant and competitive seafood industry to create and sustain American jobs, put safe and healthy food on American tables, and contribute to the American economy. Despite America’s bountiful aquatic resources, by weight our Nation imports over 85 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States. At the same time, illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing undermines the sustainability of American and global seafood stocks, negatively affects general ecosystem health, and unfairly competes with the products of law-abiding fishermen and seafood industries around the world. More effective permitting related to offshore aquaculture and additional streamlining of fishery regulations have the potential to revolutionize American seafood production, enhance rural prosperity, and improve the quality of American lives. By removing outdated and unnecessarily burdensome regulations; strengthening efforts to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing; improving the transparency and efficiency of environmental reviews; and renewing our focus on long-term strategic planning to facilitate aquaculture projects, we can protect our aquatic environments; revitalize our Nation’s seafood industry; get more Americans back to work; and put healthy, safe food on our families’ tables.”

That Executive Order also designated NOAA “as the lead agency for aquaculture projects located outside of the waters of any State or Territory and within the exclusive economic zone of the United States …”

Then, in January 2021, the USACE issued Nationwide Permit 56, which “authorizes the installation of cages, net pens, anchors, floats, buoys, and other similar structures into navigable waters of the United States” to facilitate aquaculture projects, including those that would be “anchored to the seabed in waters overlying the outer [Continental Shelf] …”

Additionally, the permit authorizes the production of bivalve shellfish — such as oysters — or seaweed on a structure used for finfish production, or on a nearby structure “that is part of the single and complete project.”

The nonprofit Center for Food Safety, which is based in San Francisco, has noted that the USACE estimates that Nationwide Permit 56 “will be used for 25 activities over the course of the 5-year life of the permit, impacting 50 acres of coastal waters.”

Moreover, the Center for Food Safety pointed out, finfish aquaculture “has not previously been attempted on a commercial scale in U.S. federal waters.” (See the related article in this issue.)

The Velella Epsilon plans

This spring — after an almost 18-month-long legal battle with environmental groups — the Region 4 staff of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has its headquarters in Atlanta, reaffirmed its September 2020 issuance of a final permit for a pilot finfish project that would be established about 45 miles off the Sarasota County coast. Dubbed “Velella Epsilon,” the initiative has been planned by a Hawaii-based company called Ocean Era, which previously was known as Kampachi Farms.

The “net pen” that the company would use would be anchored to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico at a depth of approximately 130 feet, according to an EPA fact sheet.

That project would start with about 20,000 almaco jack — using fingerlings supplied by Mote Marine Laboratory of Sarasota — with the goal of producing slightly less than 80,000 pounds of seafood in 12 months.

In its initial response to the legal challenge of the EPA permit, the federal Environmental Appeals Board did ask the Region 4 staff to provide a status report, noting that the Biden Administration “recently issued an executive order directing federal agencies to ‘immediately review’ certain actions taken ‘during the last 4 years’ and to ‘consider suspending, revising or rescinding’ those actions.”

Yet, that direction merely resulted in a delay in the Board’s reaching a final decision that the EPA acted appropriately.

Environmental organizations — including the Center for Food Safety, Recirculating Farms and Don’t Cage Our Oceans — have stressed that feed for the fish in the Ocean Era “net-pen,” as well as waste from the fish, will degrade that area of the Gulf and potentially lead to more occurrences of red tide. They have emphasized that Southwest Florida has had significant red tide events in recent years — including one that began in the fall of 2017 and which was not declared over until early 2019.

The latter episode resulted not only in hundreds of millions of dollars of economic loss — including a dramatic drop in tourism in Sarasota County — but also in the deaths of a multitude of sea life, with dead fish littering Sarasota County and other beaches. Dolphins and sea turtles were among the creatures that died, as documented by Mote Marine and other organizations that care for injured sea mammals and turtles.

Although Ocean Era has its EPA permit for Velella Epsilon, it still needs what is called a “Section 10” permit from the USACE. Section 10 of the federal 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 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,” A USACE document says, “is unlawful unless the work has been recommended by the Chief of Engineers and authorized by the Secretary of the Army.”

The News Leader checked last week with David J. Ruderman, a public information officer for the USACE at its district office in Jacksonville, about Ocean Era’s application for that permit.

It is still under review, he responded on July 18, adding that he had nothing new to report since the News Leader contacted him about the permit status following the EPA’s action on Velella Epsilon in June.

Federal agencies’ goal for the Velella Epsilon pilot project, Cufone of Recirculating Farms told the News Leader, is “to prove that [offshore aquaculture] can be done,” so more such ventures can be pursued.

Leaders of a number of environmental organizations — including Suncoast Waterkeeper in Sarasota — have been talking about filing suit against the EPA over the Velella Epsilon permit, Cufone noted. They have 120 days from the date that the permit was issued to take such action, she said.

Yet, instead of opening up opportunities for litigation, Cufone pointed out, “Our [federal] agencies are better tasked with managing and protecting our coastal resources …”
Noting that she works in Florida, she said of state residents, “We use our marine waters [offshore] for so many purposes … and tourism is our No. 1 industry.”

Encouraging the establishment of “fish farms,” she added, “just makes no sense.”

The latest NOAA action

On June 1, even before the EPA reaffirmed its issuance of the final permit for Velella Epsilon, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that it had published a Notice of Intent about plans of the National Marine Fisheries Service to identify the potential of “Aquaculture Opportunity Areas” in federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

Three of those proposed sites are off the coast of Florida, as shown in a map the agency released. The one designated E-3 would be sited between 90 and 91.6 kilometers — or about 49 nautical miles — from the inlets off Port Manatee and Tampa, while E-1 — which NOAA notes had the highest score of the three options — would be between 104 kilometers and 107.7 kilometers from the inlets off Fort Myers.

E-3 appears to be on the same latitude as Siesta Key, as the News Leader has reported.

“We’re shocked to see the lines on the map,” Cufone of Recirculating Farms told the News Leader.

Written comments on the Aquaculture Opportunity Area proposal will be accepted through Aug. 1, NOAA pointed out with its announcement. To ensure that a person’s views are made part of the public record, NOAA provided the following details:

“Electronic submissions: Submit all electronic public comments via the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal. Go to http://www.regulations.gov and enter ‘NOAA-NMFS-2022-0044’ in the Search box. Click on the ‘Comment’ icon, complete the required fields, and enter or attach the comments.

“Mail: Submit written comments by mail to Andrew Richard, Regional Aquaculture Coordinator, NMFS, Southeast Regional Office, 263 13th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33701. Please include ‘Gulf AOA PEIS’ on the envelope.”

The Gulf already has dead zones, Cufone reminded the News Leader. “It deeply concerns me that these agencies think this is a good path forward.”

Denmark is one of the countries whose leaders are stepping back from such initiatives, she pointed out. “They have learned that it is not a good idea. … We just do not learn from the global experience.”

In August 2019, as Phys.org reported, leaders of the government in Denmark said they would stop development of fish farming at sea. “Denmark has reached the limit of the number of fish that can be raised at sea without endangering the environment,” Environment Minister Lea Wermelin said in a statement. “We must be a green pioneer, including fish farming.”

Canada also is moving away from such initiatives, as ScienceLine reported in late February.

In a 2019 mandate letter, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau directed Bernadette Jordan, then Canada’s minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, “to transition away from open-net fish farming by 2025,” Tatum McConnell wrote in a Feb. 25 ScienceLine article.

Following Trudeau’s 2021 re-election, McConnell added, Trudeau restated his goal in a mandate letter that December to Minister Joyce Murray, who replaced Jordan.

Referring to leaders of NOAA, Cufone told the News Leader, “It just seems like they’re moving too fast. They’re so desperately trying to move the ball forward. … They are making crucial mistakes. That’s a real concern for all of us,” she added, “especially coastal communities that rely on the Gulf of Mexico.”