A group of 42 Florida businesses Wednesday sent a letter to the State’s congressional delegation asking it to block a proposed industrial finfish farm off the coast of Sarasota.
Businesses all along the Gulf of Mexico warn of disastrous effects to the environment and the Gulf’s tourism industry.
In an economic climate already decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Gulf businesses warned Congress turning the Gulf’s federal waters into an economic experiment could be a death knell to tourism in the state.
Signers representing hotels; bars and restaurants; commercial and recreational fishing; retail and more wrote “we must ensure that existing local businesses can bring back jobs and continue to create new opportunities for workers in our communities. If allowed to expand, this harmful industry will undermine that recovery process.”
A slowing trend
Advocates for offshore finfish farms say it’s an opportunity to increase domestic seafood yield. But Marianne Cufone, executive director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition said it’s an experiment that’s already failing around the globe.
“Offshore finfish farming has been very problematic globally,” Cufone said. “In fact, so much so that other countries that have been previously considered world leaders in aquaculture, like Canada and Denmark, are moving away from the practice because it’s been so detrimental to their environment and economy.”
In the last few months alone, Canada has recommitted itself to moving away from offshore net pen farms and Denmark’s Environment Minister said “the sea should not be a dustbin” as she proposed legislation to move more fish farming to land.
Area of opportunity
An executive order from the Trump administration and legislation drafted by Sen. Marco Rubio cleared the way for the U.S.’s first offshore aquaculture – an open water cage for farmed finfish. The proposed Velella Epsilon project would put a floating fish farm about 45 miles west of Sarasota. That’s where parent company Ocean Era would raise about 20,000 Almaco Jack in a specially designed net pen.
U.S. federal waters in the Gulf are being eyed as areas of opportunity. Meaning one offshore farm would only be the beginning.
That doesn’t sit well with Bob Zales II. He’s a Panama-based charter boat captain and de facto keeper of the realm for Florida’s Gulf waters. He’s a leader in organizations like the National Association of Charter Boat Operators, Panama City Boatmen Association and Florida Guides Association. He’s also the fishery management consultant for the Southern Offshore Fishermen’s Association, a Madeira Beach-based group that advocates for keeping the Gulf clean and environmentally secure.
“We can’t take the risk. You look at COVID, everything today is a risk,” Zales said. “If you don’t try to do the best you can to protect what you’ve got, you’re risking your livelihood. That’s what we can’t afford to do.”
So long and thanks for all the fish
Data from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services shows seafood production in Florida accounted for 4,000 jobs and had an economic impact of more than $400 million in 2016 alone.
Zales said allowing offshore farming would take away those jobs and that money.
“Whether you’re commercial, whether your charter, whether you’re private,” he said. “Without access to areas to fish, you have no opportunity to fish. With no opportunity, you have no fishing.”
It’s not just the physical space farms take up either. Cufone said farming introduces chemicals and pollutants through feed, antibiotics and waste. That can exacerbate Red Tide, a problem that costs the Gulf Coast and Florida about $20 million a year.
“Things coming out of the farm like excess fish feed, fish waste and any chemicals or pharmaceuticals that are used on fish or on the cages to keep them clean,” Cufone said. “We don’t need more of that in our environment. We already have pollution and water quality challenges.”
Zales added there’s always the threat of escape. Farmed fish can change the structure of an ecosystem. Canada is currently dealing with escaped fish interfering with wild salmon on its west coast. Earlier this week an Australian offshore net farm had an escape of around 130,000 farmed fish.
Zales said even the strongest of cages wouldn’t be a match for the increased frequency and strength of storms in the Gulf.
“If you look at a hurricane that’ll roll through here and knockdown these massive oil production platforms that are built to withstand what they call 100-year-storms and they top them over,” he said. “I doubt very seriously if there’s anybody out there that can create any kind of cage that will be able to withstand such damage from a storm. You’re not gonna convince me they’ve got a fool-proof cage out there to do this.”
Velella Epsilon has received a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s awaiting a construction permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. Cufone said it’s not too late to shift the focus from offshore to land-based fish farming if the U.S. wants to up its domestic production.
“It’s just a smarter more eco-friendly approach,” Cufone said. “If we want to move forward with aquaculture in the United States, it ought to be done in recirculating farms.”
A majority of seafood in the U.S. is imported. It sometimes comes from domestically sourced seafood that’s shipped out for processing before being reimported.
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