Opponents of proposed ‘fish farm’ off Sarasota County coast lining up for Jan. 28 public hearing

Environmental organizations warn of numerous potential problems if EPA approves permit for project, including pollution and irreparable harm to native wild ocean species

This is the banner on the Kampachi Farms website. Image from Kampachi Farms

With opposition mounting to a proposed “fish farm” about 45 miles southwest of Longboat Pass and Sarasota Bay, in the Gulf of Mexico, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has scheduled a Jan. 28 public hearing on the plans.

From 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 28, staff of the EPA’s Region 4 office, in Atlanta, will conduct the hearing on the draft National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for the project. The applicant is Kampachi Farms, a “Hawaii-based [marine agriculture] company focused on expanding the environmentally sound production of the ocean’s finest fish,” Kampachi’s website says.

“Aquaculture facilities produce and discharge wastes (excess fish feed and fecal material) that contain pollutants,” a draft EPA fact sheet on the project explains. “Accordingly, marine aquaculture operations are considered point sources that discharge industrial wastewater,” the draft fact sheet adds.

“For Clean Water Act (CWA) purposes, federal waters in the Gulf extend seaward” from the 3 nautical-mile boundary of each Gulf coastal state to 200 miles offshore, the draft fact sheet points out. “In the vicinity of the facility,” the draft fact sheet continues, “the Gulf is not considered an impaired water pursuant to CWA …”

According to the April 2019 draft Environmental Assessment for the pilot project, the location of the fish farm is “a portion of the west Florida Shelf that is heavily trawled by the shrimp fishing industry.”

A group of 13 nonprofit organizations that sent a joint letter to the EPA in late September 2019 pointed out, “The proposed permit and supporting documentation fail to fully acknowledge the breadth of socio-economic, public health, and environmental problems associated with marine finfish aquaculture. Issuing the permit despite these clear problems would be folly and vulnerable to legal challenge.”

The draft EPA permit “requires the implementation of best management practices (BMP) and a BMP plan to prevent or minimize the discharge of wastes and pollutants to the receiving water body and to ensure disposal of wastes in such as way as to minimize negative environmental impacts and comply with relevant solid waste disposal regulations,” the document says.

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

A September 2019 National Public Radio (NPR) story by Leah Douglas noted, “Americans eat an average of 16 pounds of fish each year, and that number is growing, But how to meet our demand for fish is a controversial question, one that is entering a new chapter as [the EPA] seeks to approve the nation’s only aquaculture pen in federal waters.”

Officially called the Velella Epsilon project, according to the draft EPA fact sheet, the proposal calls for a “net-pen” production facility containing about 20,000 fish for approximately 12 months.

The EPA’s draft Environmental Assessment of the project says the juvenile fish “will be sourced from brood stock that are located at Mote Aquaculture Research Park and were caught in the Gulf near Madeira Beach, Florida. … Following harvest, cultured fish would be landed in Florida and sold to federally-licensed dealers in accordance with state and federal laws.”

The Jan. 28 hearing will be conducted at Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium’s WAVE Center, located at 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, the EPA announced.

Additionally, the EPA has extended its public comment period for the draft NPDES permit, the draft Environmental Assessment (EA) on the project and the draft Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), a Dec. 12, 2019 EPA notice points out. That deadline is Feb. 4.

Comments may be addressed to NPDES Permitting Section, Water Division, Environmental Protection Agency, 61 Forsyth Street, S.W., Atlanta, Georgia 30303-8960, ATTENTION: Mr. Kip Tyler. Comments also may be sent via email to R4NPDES.Kampachi@epa.gov.

Further, those wishing to register to speak at the Jan. 28 public hearing should send that information to the above email address at least 72 hours before the event, the Dec. 12, 2019 EPA public notice says.

“Following the public hearing, and after consideration of all written and oral comments and data and the requirements of the Clean Water Act … and applicable regulations, the EPA Regional Administrator will issue a final permit decision and forward a copy of the final decision to the applicant and each person who has submitted written comments or requested notice,” the Dec. 12, 2019 EPA notice continues. “Within 30 days following the notice of the final permit decision any person who filed comments on the draft permit or participated in the public hearing may file a petition for review in accordance with [the applicable federal regulation]. Additionally, any person who failed to file comments or participate in the public hearing may petition for review of any permit conditions in the final permit decision, but only to the extent that those final permit conditions reflect changes from the draft permit,” the Dec. 12, 2019 document explains.

Details of the proposal

The pen planned for the Kampachi Farms project “will be a copper alloy mesh submersible circular cage with a diameter of 17 meters and a height of 7 meters, contained within a high-density polyethylene frame,” the draft EPA fact sheet explains. It would be deployed on a swivel mooring system with up to three anchors.

The fish would be Seriola rivoliana, or longfin yellowtail, the draft fact sheet notes. Those fish also are known as almaco jack, which are related to natural amberjack, The Sarasota News Leader learned from online research.

This is a longfin yellowtail, also known as an almaco jack. Image by Kare Kare via Wikipedia

“The mooring line for the proposed project will be attached to a floating cage that will rotate in the prevailing current direction,” the draft fact sheet continues. “The ocean currents will maintain the mooring rope and chain under tension during most times of operation,” the draft fact sheet notes.

The estimated final fish size is expected to be about 4.4 pounds, the draft fact sheet says, “meaning the total maximum harvest weight is estimated to be approximately 88,000 [pounds].”

The maximum amount of fish feed per month would be approximately 27,268 pounds, the draft fact sheet adds.

On its website, Kampachi Farms says, “Ongoing research into alternative feeds is focused on reducing [aquaculture’s] reliance on wild-caught fishmeal and fish oil, replacing them with more sustainable American-grown agricultural products.”

The website adds, “Kampachi Farms has successfully conducted two state-of-the-art offshore aquaculture trials in Federal waters around Hawaii. Those trials tested numerous technologies necessary to take aquaculture ‘over the horizon.’”

One of its tests, the website notes, involved a copper-alloy meshed pod stocked with about 2,000 almaco jack between 3 and 75 miles offshore of Oahu. “This was the world’s first unanchored net pen trial,” Kampachi Farms points out. It was awarded “one of TIME Magazine’s ’25 Best Inventions of the Year for 2012.’”

This is a summary of the monitoring requirements for the fish farm, as detailed in the draft EPA permit. Image courtesy EPA

Documented risks

On Sept. 29, 2019, in response to the draft EPA permit, representatives of 13 environmental organizations — including Friends of the Earth, the Center for Food Safety and the Institute for Fisheries Resources — sent their letter to the EPA, pointing out that the “permit would allow Kampachi Farms, LLC to operate the only industrial ocean fish farm in U.S. federal waters … and discharge untreated, industrial wastewater from the facility directly into the surrounding ocean.”
The letter noted of the fish pens, “These are essentially floating feedlots in open water …”

“For decades,” the letter pointed out, “the federal government has pushed to expand marine finfish aquaculture in federal waters, despite massive public opposition and negative global experiences with the industry, including but not limited to: farmed fish spills, parasites, disease, conflicts with marine life, use of antibiotics and other toxins, harm to wild fisheries and coastal economies, and the devastation of native wild fish stocks.”

The organizations added, “We have been closely tracking — and are entirely opposed to — the federal government’s continued push to recklessly develop and expand this destructive and unnecessary industry in the United States.”

Moreover, they wrote, “Should federal agencies begin permitting marine finfish aquaculture — beginning with this permit — there lies a significant conflict-of-interest risk in the proposed framework for promoting and regulating the industry. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has proclaimed itself as the lead agency on policy formulation and regulation of domestic finfish aquaculture. However, in addition to its regulatory efforts, NOAA also has prioritized the explicit goal of promoting and expanding marine finfish aquaculture production in the United States.”

These are all of the signatories of the letter to the EPA except for the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance. Image courtesy of the nonprofits

The letter pointed out that as of August 2019, Denmark had prohibited “the expansion of offshore aquaculture development out of concern for the industry’s impact to the environment. Here in the U.S., Washington State swiftly moved to phase-out marine finfish aquaculture for non-native species following a massive Atlantic salmon spill in August 2017, essentially shuttering all facilities in the state by 2022.”

“Escaped fish increase competition with wild stocks for food, habitat, and spawning areas,” the letter continued. “Moreover, reliance on the sterility of farmed fish to prevent interbreeding is never100% guaranteed [emphasis in the letter] … Finally, escaped farmed fish will likely spread a multitude of parasites and diseases to wild stocks, which could prove fatal when transmitted.”

The letter included footnotes for its assertions.

This is one example of the footnotes in the letter to the EPA. Image courtesy of the nonprofits

Among other concerns, the letter continued, is the attraction of predators to the fish cages. Birds, seals and sharks, for example, “can easily become entangled in net pens, stressed by acoustic deterrents, and hunted. Indeed, an industrial ocean fish farm caused the death of an endangered monk seal in Hawaii, which was found entangled in the net.”

As for the food for the farmed fish: The letter explained, “Most industrially farmed finfish, like Almaco jack, are carnivorous and need protein in their feed. This often consists of … ‘forage fish,’ which are at risk of collapse. Lately, aquaculture facilities are relying more on genetically-engineered ingredients such as corn, soy, and algae as substitute protein sources, which do not naturally exist in a fish’s diet. Use of these ingredients can lead to widespread environmental degradation, a heightened demand on natural resources, and a less nutritious fish for consumers.”

The nonprofits that sent the letter were among opponents who urged the EPA to conduct a public hearing on the Kampachi Farms proposal.

Other organizations urge participation in hearing

The Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, the Siesta Key Association and the Siesta Key Condominium Council are among local organizations that have alerted their members to the Jan. 28 hearing and encouraged them to make comments.

In its Jan. 3 alert, the Siesta Key Chamber wrote of the proposal, “This is of great concern to Siesta Key and Sarasota residents, as the beaches, fish, water quality and wildlife are endangered. Environmentalists and local fisherman oppose this farm, which would be the first in federal waters and could open the way for many more. Those concerned with tourism and the beaches’ huge contribution to the Sarasota economy also should be concerned.”

This is commercial fisheries data provided in the draft Environmental Assessment for the project. Image courtesy EPA

“There are a variety of articles online reported by the Tampa Bay Times, US News & World Report [and other publications] describing the results of fish farming, which do not bode well for our Florida coastline, including an increase in nitrogen levels which seem to be related to red tide,” the Siesta Chamber notice continued.

Gayle Reynolds, Sarasota conservation chair of the Manatee-Sarasota chapter of the Florida Sierra Club, also urged members of that nonprofit to attend the Jan. 28 hearing. In a Dec. 29, 2019 email blast, she wrote, “[T]he Sierra Club and most all environmental [organizations] have already signed off in opposition to the permit. We do not need another high risk, polluting industry starting up in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Sarasota environmental activist Adrien Lucas wrote the Sarasota County commissioners an email on Dec. 30, 2019, expressing “hopeful anticipation” that they would “wisely join the effort in protecting the Sarasota Gulf waters” from the proposed Kampachi fish farm.

The Sarasota County Commission lists water quality as one of its top concerns for the community, Lucas noted.

“Respectfully, now is not the time for ‘science-lite,’” Lucas told the commissioners. “[W]e need all of you to step up and join the concerned community and the numerous environmental agencies in the area who are saying NO to marine aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico. This is not a good look for Sarasota! The Sarasota science community and its elected officials can do better! Cut the cords of dependent funding and let science save our waters, house values and tourist dollars.”

Sarasota County Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester told the News Leader on Jan. 7 that one staff member from the county’s Stormwater/Environmental Utility Division would be present for the Jan. 28 hearing, along with a staff member of the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Extension Program in the county. The former person would be registered and available to speak or answer questions if needed, Winchester noted.

“Sarasota County staff will not be offering a position on the project,” Winchester added.

Public email correspondence the News Leaderread on the City of Sarasota’s website this week indicated that both Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch and city Sustainability Manager Stevie Montes-Freeman would attend the Jan. 28 hearing, as well.

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