Sarasota mayor to seek commission support for letter of opposition to proposed ‘fish farm’ off county coast

Discussion planned during evening session of Feb. 3 board meeting

This is an example of a Kampachi Farms net-pen. Image from Kampachi Farms LLC

At the request of Sarasota Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch, the City Commission on Feb. 3 will consider submitting to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) a letter of opposition to a proposed “fish farm” that would be located about 45 miles off the Sarasota County coast.

On the morning of Jan. 30, City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs and her staff announced the “change to the order of the day” for the commission’s regular meeting on Monday.

The notice followed a Jan. 28 public hearing at Mote Marine Laboratory regarding the proposal by Kampachi Farms LLC to place a net-pen aquaculture facility in about 40 meters of water in the Gulf of Mexico. This would be the first operation of its type in federal waters.

Environmental activists have protested the plan, citing the potential that pollution from the facility will foster the growth of red tide blooms in the Gulf of Mexico.

On the other side of the issue, supporters have cited the growing demand for fish as a food source worldwide.

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 backup agenda material for the Feb. 3 City Commission meeting points out that the EPA will accept public comments on the proposed initiative — officially called Velella Epsilon — through Feb. 4.

A draft of the city letter to the EPA, included with that backup agenda material for the Feb. 3 meeting, says, “Please accept this letter on behalf of the Sarasota City Commission as our strong and formal opposition to this project.”

The letter continues, “Our region is extremely [sensitive] to Red Tide. Substantial scientific studies link excess nitrogen and phosphate to the growth of harmful algal blooms which fuel Red Tide. Adding nitrogen and phosphate to our warm Gulf waters is too risky and dangerous, even on a trial basis. As stated in the public notice, this permit would authorize the discharge of industrial wastewater from a marine net-pen aquaculture facility to raise 20,000 Almaco Jack and produce up to an 88,000-pound harvest. The nitrogen waste generated from the feces of the fish in a confined system in the warm Gulf waters, in addition to the 27,268 pounds of feed needed per month, will impact our ever-fragile Gulf ecosystem. The most recent red tide outbreak in 2018 had a devastating impact on our coast — not only on the quality of life of our residents and tourists, but also environmentally and economically. The economic impact alone is estimated at $96.4 million.

“As elected officials,” the letter adds, “we must protect the health, welfare, and safety of our constituents. The proposed permit for Kampachi Farms, LLC is not consistent with our duty and our goals.”

Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch. News Leader image

Nonetheless, the letter notes, “The City supports the pursuit of aquaculture, where it makes sense as a way to minimize the dependence on imported seafood …” The commission’s objection, the letter explains, “is to the experimental nature of this project based on the facts provided.”

On its webpage about the Velella Epsilon proposal, Kampachi Farms says that the company “has successfully deployed smaller Aquapod™ demonstration fish pens off the coast of Kona, Hawaii. The Velella Beta-test was awarded one of TIME Magazine’s 25 Best Inventions of the Year, and was featured on a National Geographic special hosted by Dr. Robert Ballard. The Velella Beta-test and the Velella Gamma project were both also highly popular with the local Kona fishing community, as the net pen arrays acted as Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs), and proved to be exciting dive sites for snorkel tours.”

The webpage adds, “Neil Anthony Sims, CEO for Kampachi Farms stated, ‘The primary goal of the demonstration project is to help the local communities in the Gulf of Mexico to understand the ancillary benefits that offshore aquaculture can bring to fisheries and to recreational tourism.’”

Kampachi Farms has encouraged the public to read more about its research.

With the comment period having been extended until Feb. 4, the EPA has announced that anyone wishing to submit written materials may send them via email to; or via fax to 404-562-9772.

Impetus for the City Commission discussion

On Jan. 29, City Manager Tom Barwin responded to an email from Ronald Kashden of Sarasota, who had written to thank Barwin, Mayor Ahearn-Koch and city Sustainability Manager Stevie Montes-Freeman for attending the Jan. 28 EPA hearing.

City Manager Tom Barwin. Photo courtesy City of Sarasota

Barwin wrote, “I felt most of the 70 speakers were very well prepared and thoughtful. I stayed to the end and publicly thanked both the EPA and speakers for contributing to this very important part of the process while expressing to the EPA how concerned our community is about restoring the Gulf’s natural environment. Personally I am very concerned with this prospect and will be conveying my concerns to the City Commissioners.”

Later on Jan. 29, Ahearn-Koch also replied to Kashden: “Just wanted you to know that last night, after returning home from the meeting, I requested a resolution addressing this be drafted and added to Monday’s agenda (with back-up materials) for Commission discussion, just in time for the Feb 4 [public comment] deadline.”

Earlier this week, Kashden contacted The Sarasota News Leader to raise a new concern about the potential impact of the Kampachi Farms project on red tide.

He pointed to a section of the EPA’s Ocean Discharge Criteria Evaluation, which says, “Rapid rates of nitrification are expected in any well-oxygenated aquatic environment (Harris 1986). The effects of these factors on phytoplankton near fish farms are variable and no good scientific evidence is available to suggest that macronutrients and micronutrients from fish farming [are] related to the occurrence of red tides.”

Kashden added that he and other opponents of the Kampachi Farms project were able to contact the researcher named Harris who was cited in that EPA document, to learn “if there was any update” to that decades’ old statement.

Graham Harris, who lives in Tasmania, Kashden noted, is a world-renowned expert on harmful algae blooms.

In a Jan. 25 email, which Kashden provided to the News Leader, Harris wrote that the statement in the EPA document was not true. Harris added, “There is an extensive international literature on the stimulation, growth and harmful effects of what are called HABs — Harmful Algal Blooms — many of them, like the dinoflagellate Red Tides are toxic. All are stimulated by increased nutrient loads. One of my old colleagues, Gustaaf Hallegraeff, has made a career out of this. We both worked on dinoflagellate blooms here in Tasmania back in the 1980s when I first arrived in Hobart.”

Harris explained, “The red tide organisms are stimulated by excess nutrient loads — some are particularly sensitive to ammonia loads — and it is the total nitrogen load to Gulf and coastal waters that is the key management parameter. Reducing the nutrient load directly reduces algal blooms.”

A graphic shows nutrient sources for red tide blooms. Image courtesy of Mote Marine Laboratory via Sarasota County

During a June 5 Water Quality Summit hosted by Sarasota County, the director of Mote Marine’s Red Tide Institute, Cynthia Heil, talked at length about the fact that nitrogen is the primary “food” for red tide. Over the past 10 years, two studies suggest that the red tide algae, Karenia brevis, prefers nitrogen in the form of ammonia when it is in full bloom mode, Heil said.

Graham Harris. Image from the CSIROpedia website

“So the [EPA] document is correct until the final sentence where it denies the international scientific evidence — and management practices,” Harris wrote in his Jan. 25 email.

The City Commission agenda item, listed as “New Business,” is scheduled just before adjournment of the Feb. 3 meeting. The evening session will begin at 6 p.m. in the City Commission Chambers at City Hall, located at 1565 First St. in downtown Sarasota.

The only other business planned for the board during that evening session — other than the traditional opportunity for public comments — is a controversial request that the City Planning Board considered over the course of two meetings. That will be a public hearing regarding plans for new residential construction at the Bath & Racquet Club in Sarasota.