By Jane Bartnett
The Gulf waters that lie 45 miles southwest of Siesta Key have brought national attention to the issue of fish farming in the United States. A proposal is now before the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create a one-year-long test project to raise 20,000 Almaco Jack fish that are native to the Florida Gulf waters, in a floating “Velella Project,” 100-ft. copper-alloy mesh cage or fish farm, that can be lowered to 130 feet below the water line. The 12-month pilot project would be managed by Kampachi FishFarms, LLC, a Hawaiian aquaculture company based in Kailua-Kona, HI. Before the project can advance any further, it must be approved by the EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers.
If approved, the floating fish farm would be the first of its kind in the Gulf of Mexico and in the continental U.S. To gauge public sentiment, the EPA held a three-hour public hearing on January 28, 2020, at MOTE Marine’s Wave Auditorium. As the meeting opened, an EPA official reported that the EPA has found that the proposal shows “no significant impact to the environment.” Some 66 individuals submitted requests to address the group that included area residents, public officials and business leaders.
Speaking before a standing room only audience, Tom Surprise, a member of the board of the Siesta Key Association spoke against the test project expressing his concerns about “discharge of un-natural elements in the waters.” Surprise asked, “What precautions are in place to take care that things don’t take over?” His comments echoed those that appear on the Association’s webpage. “What assurance is there fish farms won’t contribute to a future of catastrophic red tide blooms?” the website reads.
The Siesta Key resident was among the majority of speakers who stood against the project moving forward. Many made reference to the recent bouts of Red Tide and the need to protect Gulf Coast wildlife. As audience members listened to the speakers, many held up signs reading “Not Here.”
Biologist Dr. Kevan Main, Manager for MOTE Marine Laboratory’s Marine & Freshwater Aquaculture Research Program, and a past president of World Aquaculture Society, spoke on her own behalf, independently of Mote. She stated that the United States needs to embrace aquaculture. “Time is of the essence in developing US marine aquaculture,” she said. “We are far behind other countries.
We need to do this in a manner that is both environmentally sustainable and provides information that we need.” Main spoke of the great improvements that have been made in the past 25 years in developing the tools for aquaculture and fish farms. She noted that “98% of the seafood that we eat is imported and it is mostly farmed.” According to the US Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) 50% of US seafood imports came from the East and Southeast Asia.
Should the demonstration project advance with EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers approval, the fish “fingerlings” would be raised by Mote Marine and then delivered to the pens located below the waters’s surface. MOTE is working with Kampachi Farms on the project. Officials stated that the fish would grow to an approved size in 12 months time. It is anticipated that approximately 20,000 fish would be harvested for sale.
Days after the public hearing, Sarasota Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch asked the City Commission to send a letter of opposition to the Environmental Protection Agency. pIn defense of the project, Kampachi FishFarms founder, Neil Anthony Sims wrote on the company’s blog that the “Velella net pen pilot project in the Gulf of Mexico is part of a national initiative to increase U.S. aquaculture production in the next four years.” In Hawaii, Sims reports, Kampachi has had success in deploying smaller “Aquapod™ demonstration fish pens off the coast of Kona, Hawaii.” In 2012, he said, the “Velella Beta-test was awarded one of TIME Magazine’s “25 Best Inventions of the Year,” It was also featured on a National Geographic special. Kampachi and Florida Sea Grant, a University of Florida based program that supports research, education and extension to conserve coastal resources and enhance economic opportunities, began work on the current effort after they were awarded a grant to conduct a trial with the new Velella pen in the Gulf of Mexico in 2017.
Should the EPA grant approval for the pilot fish farm in the Gulf, it will be, Kampachi reports “on a single-point mooring, which allows the net pens to pivot as the current direction changes.” An EPA decision is expected at the end of February, 2020.