NOAA seeking comments on potential ‘Aquaculture Opportunity Areas’ in Gulf of Mexico, including one offshore of Sarasota County

Virtual public meetings planned on June 16 and July 12

This map shows the sites identified in the Gulf of Mexico for further analysis. Image courtesy NOAA

On June 1, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published a Notice of Intent about plans of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to identify the potential of “Aquaculture Opportunity Areas” in federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

Three of the sites, which would be able to contain multiple “fish farm” facilities, would be off the coast of Florida, according to a map the agency has released. E-3 would be sited between 90 and 91.6 kilometers, or approximately 49 nautical miles, from the inlets off Port Manatee and Tampa; E-4 would be located 107.8 kilometers from the inlet in Clearwater; and E-1 — which, NOAA says, scored highest of the these 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, based on a Sarasota News Leader review of the map in NOAA documents.

This is a close-up of Option E-3, which could contain more than one ‘fish farm.’ Image courtesy NOAA

Its goal, NOAA explains, is “to promote American seafood competitiveness, food security [and] economic growth, and support the facilitation of the development of domestic commercial aquaculture, consistent with sustaining and conserving marine resources and applicable laws, regulations and policies.”

A Frequently Asked Questions document included among the NOAA materials explains, “Seafood farming, if done responsibly — as it is in the US — is increasingly recognized as one of the most environmentally sustainable ways to produce food and protein. Farming of shellfish and seaweed typically requires no feed, freshwater, or fertilizer, and can provide valuable services that can benefit coastal ecosystems. Fish require far less feed than most terrestrial animals and thirty years of lessons learned have been put into practice in U.S. fish farm management practices and regulatory requirements.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is known informally as NOAA Fisheries.

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

Last year, the staff of the Southeast Region office of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), located in Atlanta, awarded a permit to a Hawaii-based company, Ocean Era, for a pilot aquaculture project about 45 miles off the Sarasota County coast. After considering appeals of the decision, the federal Environmental Appeals Board has asked the Southeast Region staff to clarify its finding that discharge from the net-pen with Almaco Jack fish would “not cause unreasonable degradation of the marine environment,” as The Sarasota News Leader reported in early May. That initiative is not a factor in this new endeavor, as indicated by the materials NOAA has released.

In regard to this latest proposal, NOAA plans to prepare a “programmatic environmental impact statement” on the potential aquaculture sites — in compliance, it says, with an Executive Order issued during the Trump Administration on May 7, 2020: Promoting American Seafood Competitiveness and Economic Growth. That order instructed NOAA “to lead a multi-agency, public planning effort to identify 10 Aquaculture Opportunity Areas” over the course of seven years. Each area, a NOAA document explains, would have between 500 and 2,000 acres that meet “the industry and engineering requirements of depth and distance from shore and that may be suitable for all types of aquaculture development including the cultivation of finfish.” As a 2021 paper by J.E. Aguilar and A.M. Liceaga explains, macroalgae also are known as seaweed, which commonly is used as a stabilizer and thickener for food formulation.

A two-year process, including public involvement

This photo shows a ‘net-pen’ used in aquaculture, with a diver nearby. Image courtesy NOAA

Along with a focus on the Gulf of Mexico, this initial analysis will consider federal waters off the coast of Southern California, the Notice of Intent points out. With assistance from the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, NOAA says, nine options were identified in the Gulf of Mexico.

The National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science’s work resulted in a 545-page document called an Aquaculture Opportunity Atlas for the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, the Notice of Intent says. “The Atlas used a precision-siting, scoring, and ranking process to narrow the suitability analysis results to nine [areas]” in the Gulf of Mexico, the Notice adds.

An Aquaculture Opportunity Area (AOA) “is a defined geographic area that has been evaluated to determine its potential suitability for commercial aquaculture, the Notice of Intent continues. “NMFS will use a combination of scientific analysis and public engagement to identify AOAs that may be environmentally, socially, and economically suitable for commercial aquaculture,” the Notice of Intent adds. They may be identified only after completion of the final programmatic environmental impact statement and the issuance of a Record of Decision, the Notice points out.

Written comments on the initiative will be accepted by Aug. 1, NOAA says. Additionally, the agency planned three virtual public meetings on the proposal. One was held on June 8. A second has been scheduled from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 16, with the third set from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 12, according to the notice in the Federal Register.

NOAA’s timeline calls for the publication this fall of a summary of the public comments that the agency receives about the plans. Then, in the fall of 2023, the draft programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) would be published, with another public comment period to follow. Last, in the summer of 2024, the final PEIS would be issued, along with the record of the agency’s decision, the document explains.

The Notice of Intent points out that persons may submit comments electronically, by mail or by stating them during the virtual public meetings. Comments should be identified as being related to NOAA-NMFS-2022-0044, the Notice points out.

These are the details about how to join these virtual meetings on the NOAA initiative. Image courtesy of NOAA

NOAA provides the following details about how to make sure a person’s comments are part of its public record:

  • “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.”

“Comments sent or provided by any other method, to any other address or individual, or received after the end of the comment period, may not be considered by NMFS,” the Notice stresses. All comments received will become part of the public record and may be posted for public viewing on http://www.regulations.gov without change. “All personal identifying information (e.g., name, address, etc.), confidential business information, or otherwise sensitive information submitted voluntarily by the sender will be publicly accessible,” the Notice points out. “NMFS will accept anonymous comments (enter ‘N/A’ in the required fields if you wish to remain anonymous).”

More details in the Atlas

This graphic references depth studies undertaken before NOAA released its Notice of Intent. Image courtesy NOAA

In its executive summary, the Aquaculture Opportunity Atlas for the U.S. Gulf of Mexicoexplains, “Aquaculture has been among the fastest growing global food production sectors for decades. Most recently, growth across the world’s aquaculture industries has been dominated by land-based freshwater systems outcompeting nearshore and offshore development.”

However, the document continues, “Technological innovations in the aquaculture field have made it possible to culture protein-rich, nutritious seafood in the coastal and offshore environments. … Consumer pressure on the industry to adopt sustainability metrics has not only improved technology, but also governance, management, and responsible siting using innovative spatial modeling.”

Further, the summary points out that areas of interest in the Gulf of Mexico were pinpointed on the basis of data showing depths ranging between 164 feet and 492 feet. The mean depth of the 2,000-acre E-3 option, off Sarasota County, is 51 meters, with a maximum depth of 51.9 meters, the report notes.

The nine Areas of Opportunity (AOA) options identified in the Gulf were chosen from 29,839 possibilities, the summary adds.

“As the U.S. embarks on the identification of AOAs, offshore siting decisions must be based on rigorous … science to drive an informed, forward-looking, and sustainable industry to maximize production efficiency and limit adverse interactions with other industries or natural resources,” the summary continues. The highest scoring ocean spaces were in the western, central and eastern study areas of the Gulf, it notes. “Major constraints in the Southeast study area included interactions with military activities, a national marine sanctuary, and sensitive biological resources (e.g., corals, submerged aquatic vegetation),” it explains. Thus, the Southeast study area was excluded, the summary says.

This is another photo of a ‘fish farm.’ Image courtesy NOAA

In its Background section, the Atlas notes that the global human population is estimated at 7.9 billion people “and that number is expected to steadily climb to 8.5 billion by 2030,” based on a 2019 United Nations report. “Seafood comprises nearly 20% of animal protein consumed around the world, providing vital nutrition across developing countries and growing middle-class communities,” the Atlas continues, citing a 2017 report.

“Already, the increasing consumer demand for seafood has contributed to an escalated rate of fisheries exploitation resulting in overharvests of many fish stocks,” the Atlasadds, citing publications dating to 2010 and 2020. Yet, the Atlas points out, fishing around the world has resulted in a relatively stable level of catches since the 1980s.

“Since the 1990s,” the Atlas says, “a growing demand for seafood has led to exponential growth in the aquaculture industry worldwide.” However, the document adds, “While global aquaculture production is valued at $275 billion annually, the United States contributes a small fraction (less than 0.5%) valued at $1.3 billion … Stressed ocean ecosystems and a decline in fisheries from overfishing, harmful fishing practices, ocean temperature changes, ocean acidification, land-based sources of pollution, and other threats has increased global awareness of the need to responsibly manage fisheries and aquaculture to meet the surging demand for sustainable seafood.”

Moreover, the Atlas notes, results released in 2013 after a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization study “identified the U.S. as having significant marine aquaculture potential …”

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