Featured image: Offshore aquaculture cage illustration courtesy Florida Sea Grant.

The takeaway message:

As the world population increases, so will the demand for seafood. But climate change and overfishing are already threatening wild stocks. A new offshore fish farm demonstration project shows promise for helping meet demand, but opponents of the project worry about its environmental impact.

What’s going on?

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has extended the public comment period for a permit that would allow construction to begin on the first offshore finfish farm in federal waters, about 45 miles off the coast of Sarasota County. The comment period was originally set to expire Nov. 4, but it is now extended to Nov. 19 due to an agency email malfunction.

According to Florida Sea Grant, offshore or open-ocean aquaculture is an emerging approach to fish farming that uses large cages or net pens anchored to the ocean floor to rear local, native fish. The proposed demonstration project, named Velella Epsilon, would operate one cage at a depth of 130 feet and house up to 20,000 almaco jack. The fish would first be hatched from eggs derived from Gulf of Mexico broodstock at the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium before being transported to the net pen as fingerlings.

The project, originally funded by Florida Sea Grant in 2017, is the first and only so far to take advantage of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Gulf Aquaculture Plan. The plan originally called for between five and 20 fish farms to set up shop in the Gulf and grow native marine species, with the exception of shrimp and coral.

The purpose of the temporary, pilot-scale project is to showcase the benefits of offshore aquaculture to policymakers, the public and fishers. By navigating the permit process, the project team hopes to create a guidebook for obtaining farm space in the Gulf, should others try.

But the process hasn’t gone smoothly given legal challenges. In August, a federal court ruled that existing policy does not authorize offshore fish farms in the Gulf and said that congressional approval would be needed before NOAA can greenlight any permit. Velella Epsilon has already obtained approval for a waste discharge permit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but must still obtain a construction permit from the Corps.

However, in early September, Sen. Marco Rubio introduced a bill: “Advancing the Quality and Understanding of American Aquaculture.” Dubbed the “AQUAA Act,” if passed, it would set up aquaculture opportunity areas in the Gulf and waters off Southern California, develop national standards for offshore fish farms and designate NOAA as the agency in charge, tasking them with streamlining the permit process.

What people have to say about it.

Wild fish stocks globally have suffered due to climate change and overfishing, making it hard for domestic fishers to keep up with the increasing demand of a growing population. Proponents of the Velella Epsilon project, like the National Marine Fisheries Service and Florida Sea Grant, point to the fact that 110 billion pounds of seafood will be needed by 2030; aquaculture can help meet these demands without depleting the wild fish stocks, they say.

According to a 2018 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “With most fishery stocks expected to remain maximally sustainably fished or overfished for at least the next decade, aquaculture must bridge the growing gap between supplies of aquatic food and demand from a growing and wealthier global population.”

Additionally, since the U.S. currently imports more than 80% of its seafood, proponents say offshore aquaculture could help curb the nation’s $10.4 billion seafood trade deficit while creating new domestic jobs.

Meanwhile, the project’s opponents – like Food and Water Watch, the Gulf Fisherman’s Association and the Center for Food Safety – are raising concerns about the environmental challenges that could come from placing a fish farm in a wild fishery, like nutrient pollution from fish waste or the threat of wildlife entanglement. But supporters say some studies show the environmental impact would be minimal.

The opposition also points to the possibility that hurricanes could damage cages and set farmed fish loose to mingle with wild populations. But Ocean Era, the company in charge of Velella Epsilon, says the net pen can easily self-adjust to the currents and waves of an incoming storm. The company also says the fish being raised in the pen come from Gulf of Mexico broodstock and are genetically identical to the wild fish in the area.

Some groups, like the Gulf Fisherman’s Association, worry new farms like this one will interfere and compete with traditional commercial fishing grounds. But according to Florida Sea Grant, NOAA has sophisticated siting software that ensures the farms do not infringe on such areas.

Because this is an emerging field, more research is still being conducted to determine the viability of offshore fish farms in the Gulf of Mexico. Supporters of the project say the demonstration farm is designed to collect additional data specific to the Gulf of Mexico to inform this ongoing research.

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