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Environment

Gulf Coast Fish Farm Permit Will Get A Second Look Under Biden Administration

An undersea fish pen with a scuba diver.
Ocean Era
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A proposed facility off Sarasota's coast would be the first finfish farm authorized in federal waters.

The facility, which would be operated by Hawaii-based company Ocean Era, would host 20,000 almaco jack in a pen suspended 45 miles offshore in the Gulf. The EPA granted the company a discharge permit last October.

Under direction from the Biden administration, the Environmental Protection Agency is revisiting a permit granted to a proposed industrial fish farm off the coast of Sarasota.

WUSF's Cathy Carter spoke about the future of deep-sea aquaculture with environmental attorney Marianne Cufone. She's also executive director of Recirculating Farms Coalition, one of more than 50 groups that signed on to a letter urging the new administration to take a second look at the EPA permit and to undo an order from the Trump administration that could accelerate the construction of off shore finfish farming nationwide.

Marianne, this planned facility known as a Velella Epsilon would be the first finfish farming project in federal waters. Your group is part of the 'Don’t Cage Our Oceans Coalition.' Can you remind us— what are environmentalists concerns with offshore aquaculture?

Things like escapes where fish get out of the pens. There's the potential for them to intermix with or overtake wild fish populations, competing for mates and habitat and food. Other issues are pollution from the cages because any food, waste or chemicals that are used in the cages can flow directly into the natural environment. And of course, they also take up real space in the environment, causing conflicts with existing industries like fishing and boating and diving so there are a whole host of concerns that come along with creating a new aquaculture industry offshore in the United States.

The EPA approved the permit in October of 2020. That's now under appeal. And the Army Corps of Engineers hasn't granted a construction permit yet. But the agency recently issued a nationwide permit that could speed up the construction of these facilities. And that process started with the last administration?

So, the Trump administration had issued an Executive Order 13921 that was purportedly to support seafood in the United States. And one of the things it did was urged various agencies to speed up development of offshore finfish aquaculture. Pursuant to that, the Army Corps of Engineers in January of this year, issued several nationwide permits that would allow construction of aquaculture facilities under the Clean Water Act and the Rivers and Harbors act. And if they move forward in the various regions, it's very possible that the Velella Epsilon project will begin construction very soon. The current administration has made noises like they are concerned about moving forward rapidly with anything that would hurt the marine environment. And this should be one of those issues that they ought to be taking a look at. I don't think that they intend to incidentally create an offshore aquaculture industry, so we're hoping that the new administration is going to recognize that these nationwide permits would do that and hold them up and reconsider them.

Well, yours and numerous other environmental groups have written a joint letter to the Biden administration. You say you'll be meeting with some members of the administration soon. What message are you going to be delivering to them about this issue?

That offshore aquaculture for finfish is an outdated and unnecessary industry. Other countries that have been considered global leaders on this are minimizing the number of offshore finfish aquaculture facilities. And so now to move forward in the United States really just doesn't make sense. We should learn from the global experience and think about if we want to increase domestic seafood production, that we should be supporting the fishing families that are already putting effort into it and who have suffered a very difficult year due to the pandemic, and also support alternate forms of more sustainable aquaculture like land based recirculating aquaculture and aquaponics that we work on. We're hoping that this administration will have a more science based holistic approach.

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