Debate over a Florida Fish Farm May Determine Who Regulates Federal Waters

by Ryan Nebeker

10/16/20

Last week, environmental activists and community members scored a victory against the advancement of a controversial Florida fish farm when the Army Corps of Engineers agreed to open a public comment period about the proposed facility. Previously, the Corps of Engineers had announced they would be proceeding with their environmental review of the Velella Epsilon project without public input. The project would raise 20,000 almaco jack (a tuna-like fish sometimes called kampachi) in cages located about 40 miles off the coast of Sarasota, and comes with a host of unanswered questions about the environmental and economic impacts of offshore farms. It also represents a potential shift in public policy towards the ocean: fishing policy generally regulates the ocean as a public resource, but the expansion of corporate farms and their pollutants into the sea is a move towards privatization.

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The move to open the comment period came after the Friends of the Earth, an environmental group that works with the Don’t Cage Our Oceans Coalition, organized a public hearing where community members and experts voiced skepticism about the impacts of the process and the legitimacy of the rushed environmental reviews.

Members of the coalition, who view the project as a bellwether for a dramatic expansion of offshore aquaculture, breathed a sigh of relief: “we are proud that after our People’s Hearing, the Army Corps made an about-turn and is now accepting public comments,” said Jason Jarvis, Commercial Fisherman from Rhode Island and Board President of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance. “A decision on any project that impacts the ecology of the ocean must involve the opportunity for public input. The Gulf is already in trouble from hurricanes, red tide and other pressures. An industrial fish farm creates the potential for disaster.”

Fish farms, with their overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, closely resemble factory farms on land. While they’ve already brought water pollution, disease and other environmental disturbances to state-controlled waters around the country, they haven’t yet expanded to the federal waters further offshore. Although proponents of offshore aquaculture insist that deeper water and stronger current will dissipate any wastes within a few hundred meters of the site, environmentalists are more skeptical, and say the project is a hazardous experiment in an area that already suffers from heavy nutrient pollution. Excess nitrogen fertilizer in the Gulf is notorious for causing algal blooms and red tides that foul water and kill fish, and nitrogen-heavy fish waste could add to the problems. The project also introduces thousands of captive-bred fish into a hurricane-prone area. A mass escape event (which isn’t unheard of in aquaculture) could destabilize the surrounding ecosystem and cause intermingling with wild populations of the fish. A key part of the Corps’ upcoming assessment is assessing the risk of storm damage and escape.

Although Velella Epsilon is coming close to doing so, no project has yet jumped over all the regulatory hurdles that stand in the way of building in an offshore zone where several federal agencies — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, The Environmental Protection Agency, the Corps of Engineers and others — all claim jurisdiction. Through public campaigns and legal challenges, environmental groups have worked hard to block these potentially disastrous projects, but upcoming legislation may undermine their hard work.

A Long Fight to Halt Offshore Fish Farms

The Corps of Engineers’ decision to hold a public comment period before proceeding with their evaluation marks the latest in a long series of twists, reversals and delays. The announcement that Ocean Era, the company behind the fish farm, was planning a facility prompted public outcry from local residents and sparked debate over what kinds of approval the facility would need. Then, under the auspices of avoiding pandemic-related food shortages (and tapping into a longstanding narrative that industrial-scale fish farming can help feed the world), the Trump administration released an executive order that made NOAA the lead agency overseeing the permitting process for offshore aquaculture operations and attempted to create an easier pathway for companies to secure permits.

In August, environmental groups seemed to secure a victory halting the facility. A federal appeals court upheld an earlier decision declaring that NOAA didn’t have the authority to regulate aquaculture, since it doesn’t technically qualify as a form of fishing, their main jurisdiction under existing law. The environmental groups behind the litigation declared this a victory, as it reaffirmed that only Congress could grant an agency the authority to permit offshore farms. As Marianne Cufone, attorney on the case and director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition, put it, “no agency has the authority. Right now we’ve got a stop to the development of ocean aquaculture.”

Unfortunately, it did little to stop the progress of the Velella Epsilon facility; Ocean Era’s CEO announced that they would be continuing with their project, since, in his view, the decision only streamlined the process by removing NOAA’s approval as an obstacle. The EPA’s recent assessment of the facility — culminating in a permit to flush 80,000 pounds of waste annually — seemed to clear the way for the farm to continue, pending review from the Corps of Engineers.

NOAA’s Marine Fisheries Division also appeared to disregard the ruling. Under the directive of the earlier executive order, NOAA continued its plans to designate offshore areas of the Gulf of Mexico and Southern California as “Aquaculture Opportunity Areas,” priority zones for clusters of offshore farms.

The AQUAA Act: A Looming Threat

NOAA’s indifference towards the court’s ruling reflects their optimism about other concerning developments in fish farm regulation. Although Velella Epsilon doesn’t have a green light yet — the public comment period and upcoming legal challenges to both the EPA’s and the Corps’ approval are likely to slow the project — new legislation threatens to resolve the inter-agency gridlock over the approval process and clear the way for more farms.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, along with Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Brian Schatz of Hawaii (home to Ocean Era’s headquarters), recently introduced the Advancing the Quality and Understanding of American Aquaculture (AQUAA) Act, which ostensibly aims “to support the development of a sustainable marine aquaculture industry in the United States.” In reality, the bill does little to safeguard the environment, and focuses on streamlining the approval process for offshore facilities under NOAA. In this regard, along with its focus on creating Aquaculture Opportunity Areas, the bill closely resembles the Trump administration’s earlier executive order. However, if signed into law, the more comprehensive legislation may be more difficult to fight, as it addresses the issue of congressional authority that was key in blocking earlier actions.

The bill adds no new environmental regulations for unique offshore facilities, instead deferring to existing law. But advocates say that existing law is already insufficient to protect coastal ecosystems from the damaging effects of pollution: red tides and fish kills are already huge issues in the Gulf, and cause millions of dollars in damage to tourism and fisheries. Adding more pressure from expanded offshore farms could only add to these problems.

In addition to aggravating existing environmental problems, the expansion of offshore farms threatens to destabilize markets for US fishermen, who already face intense competition from imported and farmed seafood. By adhering to science-based catch limits and bringing local food to markets, fishermen are a key part of a sustainable food system. Low prices from more fish farms threatens this vitally important industry. Fishing groups  like the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance have voiced opposition to the legislation, arguing that “instead of supporting the corporate takeover of our oceans, lawmakers should safeguard the economic livelihoods of fishermen and coastal residents who are already struggling and would be disproportionately harmed by industrial aquaculture.”

A version of the bill was already introduced in the House earlier this year with some bipartisan support. Previous iterations of the bill have stalled in Congress, and the timing of the bill’s introduction — between ongoing talks about an economic stimulus and before a pivotal election — make this version’s future unclear. “It’s embarrassing that Congressional leaders are pushing this bill now, when there are so many other critical issues that require attention,” Cufone of the Recirculating Farms Coalition said.

Given the administration’s clear support for the expansion of offshore aquaculture, however, the AQUAA Act — and by extension, the health of coastal ecosystems and communities across the country — joins a host of other environmental concerns that may be determined by November’s elections.

 

Top photo by TETIANA/ Adobe Stock.

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