Sarasota Community Members, Experts Speak Out Against Proposed Offshore Fish Farm

Proposed offshore finfish farm would threaten ocean environment, local economy

SARASOTA, Fla. – During a public hearing held by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today, Sarasota community members and the Don’t Cage Our Ocean Coalition spoke out against plans to allow what would be the only offshore finfish farm cage operation in the U.S. waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Should the plan be approved, the proposed Velella Epsilon project would confine at least 20,000 farmed fish in a flow-through net pen, discharging waste, excess feed and chemicals used into the Gulf of Mexico waters off the coast of Sarasota, and threatening the marine environment and local community.

Before the hearing took place, a broad coalition of Sarasota residents protested the proposed National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System(NPDES) permit, demonstrating community-wide opposition to the project.

The EPA extended the comment period an additional 90 days and scheduled a public hearing on the proposed permit in response to public opposition. 

“Coastal communities on the Gulf rely on clean water and healthy beaches,” said Michael Holderness, Siesta Key Realtor and property manager. “Offshore fish farms threaten to further tip the scale as we are losing the delicate balance between development and a healthy environment.”

Industrial ocean fish farming is the mass cultivation of finfish in the ocean in net pens, pods and cages. Essentially floating factory farms, these facilities directly discharge a slew of potential toxins into the ocean ecosystem, such as untreated fish waste and pharmaceuticals. Of principal concern is the impact that additional pollution will have on ongoing coral die-offs and algal blooms like the red tides that have already plagued the region. Operations also pose serious risks for coastal communities and wild-capture fishermen.

“Gulf communities are still recovering from devastating red tides and are struggling with declining water quality,” said Rusty Chinnis, a local angler, photojournalist and contractor. “We can’t afford to gamble with the risks inherent in industrial off-shore fish farms.”

One such risk is the chance for massive farmed fish spills – such as the August 2017 escape of more than 260,000 non-native Atlantic salmon into the Puget Sound – that threaten wild fish stocks by spreading pests and diseases and creating competition for food, habitat and mates. 

“Considering all of the likely environmental impacts and the regulatory uncertainty surrounding offshore finfish aquaculture in the Gulf, we’re asking the EPA to take a hard look at whether this type of industrial aquaculture is appropriate for the Gulf Coast, and deny the permit,” said Justin Bloom, attorney and founder of Suncoast Waterkeeper.

“Today’s hearing makes it crystal clear that Sarasota residents do not want this harmful project off their coast,” added Marianne Cufone, Director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition and long-time Florida resident. “Businesses, fishermen and other community members know Velella Epsilon is unnecessary and dangerous, and could damage both our local ecosystem and economy. We won’t stand by and let the federal government sell out our marine ecosystem and coastal economy to the highest bidder.” 

“It’s time for the federal government to listen to these concerns and abandon this floating fish farm project,” said Hallie Templeton, senior oceans campaigner for Friends of the Earth. “The EPA is finally hearing about the dangerous consequences of this proposal and the vocal opposition to industrial fish farms off our coasts. Forcing this facility through the approval process without regard for community opposition and almost no consideration for the ecological impact is an environmental injustice.”

The hearing held implications for not just Sarasota residents, but coastal communities around the country.

“If this permit is approved, it would set a dangerous precedent, opening up coastal waters around the United States to these risky industrial fish farms. The EPA should listen to everyone who has come to speak out against this project – from environmentalists to local fishermen and business owners – and deny the permits for this fish farm,” said Rosanna Marie Neil, policy counsel at Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance.

EPA’s public announcement of the draft permit includes an environmental assessment of the industry. The plan acknowledges that the proposed ocean fish farm will harm the surrounding environment, home to several hundred species, many of which are threatened or endangered. EPA’s extended comment period on the draft permit closes on February 4, 2020. Concerned citizens can submit comments to R4NPDES.Kampachi@epa.gov. 

Contact: Patrick Davis, (202) 222-0744, pdavis@foe.org

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