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Aquaculture Opportunity Area designation could create a Florida deepwater fish-farming industry

Charter fishing boat captain Glen Miller cleans freshly caught mahi-mahi at Bud N' Mary's marina in Islamorada, in the Florida Keys, on Monday, June 1, 2020. Lynne Sladky / AP

While Florida aquaculture products generate about $100 million in sales annually, Friends of the Earth says aquaculture causes poor water quality and can harm the seabed, as well as marine life.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has named a span of federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico as one of two Aquaculture Opportunity Areas (AOAs) designed to encourage open-ocean fish farming.

The AOA designation was created after President Donald Trump issued an executive order in May that expedited development of offshore aquaculture in federal waters.

Trump said the executive order was necessary to address the nation’s “seafood deficit.” Nine-tenths of seafood Americans consumed in 2017 was imported, a $17 billion “gap” between domestic and overseas seafood, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Trump’s executive order gave the nation’s regional fishery management councils six months – until mid-November – to recommend “actions to reduce burdens on domestic fishing.”

The order’s stated goals were “more effective permitting related to offshore aquaculture and additional streamlining of fishery regulations,” with ”the potential to revolutionize American seafood production.”

The Gulf of Mexico and another area off southern California were issued AOA designations because of their “sustainable” aquafarming potential, NOAA said.

“The selection of these regions is the first step in a process designed to establish 10 AOAs nationwide by 2025,” NOAA announced last week. “These two regions were selected for future aquaculture opportunity area locations based on the already available spatial analysis data and current industry interest in developing sustainable aquaculture operations in the region.”

AOA specifics remain undetermined.

“Stakeholder input is also essential to ensure the AOAs are sited in the best locations for aquaculture and to avoid conflicts with other industries or environmental harm,” NOAA’s acting National Ocean Service Assistant Administrator Nicole LeBoeuf said.

Among issues to be addressed will be how a Gulf of Mexico AOA could affect Florida’s commercial fishery and the state’s mostly littoral aquaculture industry.

Florida ranked 11th nationally in 2016 in seafood production, with 87 million pounds harvested and a dockside value of $237 million – 4.5 percent of the U.S. total value.

Florida’s commercial fishermen accounted for 3.16 percent of the state’s agricultural receipts and supported nearly 4,000 jobs for an economic impact of $407.6 million in 2016, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Florida aquaculture products generate about $100 million in sales annually, although the industry is viewed as undeveloped in the state. Half of Florida’s aquaculture sales are of tropical fish; it produces 95 percent of the nation’s total.

Trump’s executive order already has run into snags. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Aug. 3 that aquaculture is not fishing and, therefore, NOAA cannot regulate offshore fish farms, meaning demonstration projects now must await retooled EPA regulations.

Among them is the Velella Epsilon Project, a joint effort by Hawaii-based Ocean Era’s Kampachi Farms and Florida Sea Grant to install two 53-foot-by-53-foot fish pens moored in 130-135 feet of water 45 miles southwest of Sarasota.

The project, proposed in 2017, is opposed by commercial fishermen and environmental organizations.

A Friends of the Earth “concerns and talking points” memo on Velella Epsilon said proposed ocean fish farms “use industrial compounds, including copper, to prevent corrosion and fouling. They often use agricultural drugs, such as antibiotics, on the farmed fish. Finally, the farms freely discharge excess feed and fish waste, which can include nitrogen and phosphorous. All these pollutants flow into the ocean from the net pens, causing poor water quality and can harm the seabed, as well as marine life.”

The group said Florida’s fishing industry has been hammered by red tide, hurricanes and oil spills – impacts fish-farming would aggravate.

“The U.S. should learn from the negative experiences in other countries like Denmark and Canada, both of which are now moving away from this disastrous industry,” Friends of the Earth said.


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