Fish farm off Siesta coast back in business

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By John Morton

Less than five weeks after halting the permit process for a proposed fish farm in the Gulf of Mexico 45 miles off the Siesta Key coast, the Environmental Protection Agency on June 10 reissued a required National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit to the farm’s creators.

This, according to Fish Site — an online publication devoted to the sustainable growth of the aquaculture industry.

Any discharge of a pollutant from a point source to surface waters must obtain such a permit.

Now, if it lands a second required permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, Hawaii-based Ocean Era can begin to install its fish farm called Velella Epsilon.

It would be a net-pen made of copper alloy that is 17 meters in diameter and 7 meters in height. It would sit at a depth of 130 feet.

The facility would produce about 20,000 fish reared for 12 months, averaging 4.4 pounds in weight.

The project is anticipated to be the first time that cultured fish are grown through to harvest size in Gulf waters.

Neil Anthony Sims, Ocean Era’s CEO, told Fish Site “This is an opportunity for the U.S. to truly lead. There is increasing recognition among academics and environmentalists that we need to be growing more of our own seafood here, in U.S. waters, where we have more control of environmental standards and food safety oversight.

“Offshore fish farming is one of the least impactful means of producing the animal protein that we need, to feed our planet, while minimizing the impacts of the global climate crisis. It is the environmentally responsible way forward; this is just one small, first step.”

The Velella Epsilon project builds on the previous successes with the Velella Beta test and the Velella Gamma test, in Kona, Hawaii, Fish Site reports. The Velella Beta test is the world’s first-ever non-anchored “drifter” net-pen, and was recognized by TIME magazine as one of the 25 Best Inventions of the Year, in 2012.

The first EPA permit was issued in 2020, but pulled May 6 when the Environmental Appeals Board ruled that the fish farm’s operation potentially violated the Clean Water Act, asking for more clarification.

Less than a month later, the board concluded that concerns that the facility could harm aquatic ecosystems and species in the Gulf of Mexico were not strong enough to deny the permit.

The Center for Food Safety and other agencies were among those who requested the appeal.

Florida non-profit water-protection groups were also part of the appeal process.

Locally, the Siesta Key Association also voiced concern regarding potential discharges.

Said association member Jean Cannon, “In my opinion, the fish farm operation will add a concentration for food and waste to our Gulf waters — a negative discharge — that could add to our red tide problem.”

John Morton
Author: John Morton

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