Nonprofit organizations plan to appeal EPA decision on ‘fish farm’ off Sarasota County coast

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By Rachel Brown Hackney

Just days after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it plans to issue a permit to Hawaii-based Ocean Era for a pilot “fish farm” off the coast of Sarasota County, representatives of a number of local and national environmental nonprofits said they planned to appeal the decision.

Additionally, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) formally opened a public comment period for anyone wishing to offer thoughts about the “Section 10” permit Ocean Era needs from it to pursue the initiative.

Section 10, the USACE explains, “prohibits the unauthorized obstruction or alteration of any navigable waterway of the United States (U.S.).”

Nakeir Nobles of the USACE told the SNL in an early October email, “At this time we do not have a tentative decision date.”
She explained, “We review all permit applications in accordance with the federal regulations that guide our decision-making. Once our review is complete, we will make a permit decision .… The Corps of Engineers is neither a proponent [nor] opponent of any proposed project. Our mission is to provide the regulated public with fair and reasonable decisions while providing protection of the nation’s aquatic resources and navigation.”

Ocean Era plans to place 20,000 almaco jack in a metal net in the Gulf of Mexico, which would be deployed on a multi-swivel mooring system with “three concrete deadweight anchors,” the EPA and the USACE explained in a draft Environmental Assessment (EA) that they released in April 2019. The cage’s depth would be about 130 feet, an EPA fact sheet says. “The cage will be a copper alloy mesh submersible circular [structure] with a diameter of 17 meters and a height of 7 meters, the fact sheet adds.

Dr. Neal Schleifer of Siesta Key, who has provided public comments during the EPA hearing, pointed out to the SNL that the EPA did not originally plan a public hearing on its permit process. The number of comments it began receiving about the Ocean Era proposal changed the agency leaders’ decision, he said. If the USACE received enough comments, he added, he was hopeful officials at that agency would change course, as well, and conduct a hearing.

Justin Bloom, founder of the Sarasota-based Suncoast Waterkeeper organization, said that it was likely that Suncoast Waterkeeper and the Tampa Bay Waterkeeper would appeal the EPA decision. “There will be a coalition of groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, Food and Water Watch and, possibly, the Manatee-Sarasota Group of the Sierra Club,” he added.

Marianne Cufone, Executive Director of Recirculating Farms Coalition, also told the SNL in an Oct. 5 email, “Recirculating Farms is absolutely planning to appeal the EPA permit, in cooperation with others in the Don’t Cage Our Ocean Coalition. There are so many questions about the process and content of the permit documents,” Cufone pointed out. “It is important for our federal agencies to follow the law, and accurately and completely assess the risks associated with projects they permit, as they are tasked with protecting and managing our natural resources for all of us. Approval of this permit is a failure of the process and it should be reviewed.”

Schleifer of Siesta Key told the SNL that the EPA “acknowledged that … the great majority [of the comments submitted] were in opposition to the fish farm.”

A formal document the EPA issued along with notice of the permit award to Ocean Era said that it “received approximately 44,500 comments from various interested individuals and parties …”

Especially in light of that, Schleifer added, “Many people feel that the response from the EPA was not adequate.”

In line with Bloom’s and Cufone’s remarks, Schleifer said, “It looks like many different groups and many individuals” will participate in the appeals process.

He also noted the diversity of comments during a Sept. 30 virtual public hearing on the USACE permit, including speakers from many parts of the United States. “I’m impressed with how many people are turning out.”

Siesta Key Association (SKA) Directors Margaret Jean Cannon and Tom Surprise were among the participants in that hearing.

Asked about the SKA’s response to the EPA decision, President Catherine Luckner wrote in an Oct. 5 email, “We cannot support anything that may increase risk of ‘red tide’ occurrence.” 

She added, “The devastation we experienced in our gulf waters was horrific — for marine life, people and our economy.”

Luckner was referring to the last major red tide event in Southwest Florida, which began in the fall of 2017 and continued into early 2019.

“EPA’s decision to issue this permit ignores the overwhelming opposition from frontline communities that will be most impacted by the facility,” Hallie Templeton, Senior Oceans Campaigner for Friends of the Earth, wrote in a statement. “Recent red tide events and tropical weather patterns make it clear that without a healthy ecosystem, the entire region suffers. Yet EPA has prioritized corporate interests over community sentiment and its own mandate to protect the environment,” Templeton added.

On Oct. 1, Jeaneanne Gettle, director of the EPA’s Water Division, formally notified Neil Anthony Sims, President and CEO of Ocean Era — formerly Kampachi Farms — that the federal agency had issued the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit that the company needs to establish the fish farm about 45 miles west/southwest of Longboat Pass.

A Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) that the EPA issued in conjunction with the permit said the environmental review process the EPA conducted “indicates that no significant environmental impacts are anticipated from the proposed action.”

The NPDES permit formally authorizes Ocean Era to discharge wastewater from an aquatic animal production facility producing up to 80,000 pounds per year, according to the EPA fact sheet accompanying the permit decision. The maximum amount of feed given to the fish each month has been estimated at 27,268, the EPA fact sheet points out.

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