Letter of opposition to ‘fish farm’ proposal wins unanimous City Commission approval

Mayor explains worries about potential for exacerbation of red tide

Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch. File photo

After having spent hours talking with people knowledgeable about the proposal, and undertaking her own research, Sarasota Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch strongly encouraged her colleagues this week to approve a letter of opposition to a proposed “fish farm” that would be placed 130 feet deep in the Gulf of Mexico, about 45 miles off the Sarasota County coast.

This pilot project, planned by Kampachi Farms — which is based in Hawaii — would be in federal waters, which begin 3 miles off the coast, Ahearn-Koch explained.

“This would be the first [for the contiguous United States],” she pointed out, “and it would open a door.”

Kampachi Farms has stressed the need for marine aquaculture to meet the growing demand for fish in the human diet.

The “net-pen” would hold 20,000 fish, which would be fed pellets containing food — including phosphate — and antibiotics, she continued. The fishes’ fecal matter would fall to the floor of the Gulf.

“Would this one pen impact our waters?” she asked. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has said, “No,” Ahearn-Koch added.

Yet, she continued, “When there’s one, there’s two, there’s 20, there’s 1,000. Right now, we have a very serious red tide problem.”
Red tide, she emphasized, “is always out there.

“We have directed a lot of energy and effort to water quality and water quantity,” she added, noting that research has shown that nitrogen and phosphorous “are not beneficial to our Gulf,” as those are the primary “food” for the red tide algae, Karenia brevis.

This graphic, presented to attendees at the Sarasota County Water Quality Summit in June 2019, offers details about nutrients that feed red tide. It was provided by Cynthia Heil, director of Mote Marine’s Red Tide Institute

Through Feb. 4, the EPA was taking comments from the public. If the City Commission submitted a statement, Ahearn-Koch noted, that would give the city “standing,” so it could stay involved in the issue and continue to have a say.

Net pens Kampachi Farms has deployed in Hawaii, Ahearn-Koch noted, are in cold water, and they are placed thousands of feet deep. The conditions are quite different, she explained, from the circumstances in the Gulf, which also has much different tidal currents.

The red tide bloom that ravaged the county’s coastline in 2018 had a negative impact of $96.4 million on the economy, she pointed out. A wide array of people suffered, she said — from real estate agents to small business owners to schoolchildren, who had to be hospitalized for respiratory problems as a result of exposure to red tide’s aerosol. “Our environment is our economy; there’s no way around it.”

Mote Marine Laboratory staff members bring a deceased dolphin into its facilities on City Island in August 2018, so a necropsy can be performed to determine if red tide exposure caused the death. Photo by Connor Goulding of Mote Marine

Given the community’s struggles over what can be done to clean its coastal waters, Ahearn-Koch told her colleagues, “If this [fish farm] could one-millionth of a percent exacerbate red tide, I think it is something that we cannot and should not support.”

Several speakers addressed the board that night, offering their own concerns about the proposal. Among them, Kafi Benz, president of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA), told the commissioners, “The Gulf of Mexico is the last place this type of finfish farming should exist.”

Florida, Benz explained, has an “unusual circumstance” offshore: The Continental Shelf extends about 100 miles to the west. Conversely, she pointed out, “Hawaii has extremely deep water off its shores.” At most, Benz continued, the depth of the water off Florida is 200 feet, “and it’s a live bottom.”

This graphic in an EPA document related to the proposed fish farm shows details about the waters offshore of Florida’s west coast. Image courtesy EPA

The location planned for the fish farm is in a prime shrimp trawling area for commercial fishermen, one EPA document noted.

During the discussion, City Manager Tom Barwin also provided what he characterized as “Gulf factoids.”

For example, Barwin noted that 116 rivers flow into the Gulf of Mexico. Thus, the stormwater runoff that goes into those rivers ends up in the Gulf, he said. Altogether, Barwin noted, 30% of the stormwater in the contiguous United States ends up in those rivers.

Furthermore, Barwin continued, “There are 850 offshore oil platforms out in the Gulf; started with one.”

“Were at the 11th hour to even be able to participate in the conversation,” Barwin emphasized of the EPA’s Feb. 4 deadline for submission of comments for the record.

No one on the City Commission voiced opposition to Ahearn-Koch’s proposed letter to the EPA. However, Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie made a motion asking that a copy of the letter go to both the Sarasota County Commission and to Mote Marine Laboratory. She pointed out that Mote plans to provide the fingerling fish to Kampachi Farms for the pilot project — if the company ultimately wins the necessary EPA permit, and necessary approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

This graphic in an EPA document shows the major tidal currents in the Gulf of Mexico. Image courtesy EPA

Freeland Eddie, who serves on the county’s Tourist Development Council, also noted that the County Commission in mid-January agreed to reapportion part of its annual Tourist Development Tax — or “bed tax” — revenue, so it can give Mote $20 million for Mote’s planned $130-million Science Education Aquarium at Nathan Benderson Park.

Sending the city letter to the EPA about the fish pen proposal, Freeland Eddie continued, “is a decision that has tourist impact … not that we’re asking for [the County Commission’s] support.”

Commissioner Willie Shaw seconded Freeland Eddie’s motion, and it passed 4-0. Commissioner Hagen Brody had left the dais by that point, as the vote took place early in the morning of Feb. 4, after a long public hearing during the board’s evening session.

No comments from the EPA

Since Jan. 29 — the day after Region 4 staff of the EPA conducted a public hearing on the fish farm concept at Mote Marine — The Sarasota News Leader has made repeated attempts to learn from the EPA whether a tentative timeline exists for the agency to make its decision about the Kampachi Farms permit. The News Leader also has asked how many comments have been submitted to the EPA on the proposal. As of the deadline for publication this week, the EPA has not provided any answers.

In the last email the News Leader received from Region 4 Lead Public Affairs Specialist Dawn Harris-Young — on Jan. 30 — she wrote, “I am working on your request.”