Both environmentalists and anglers have raised concerns about the negative impacts of a proposed fish farm off the Southwest Florida’s coast. Read David McGrath’s comments here, then send your comments on the proposal to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at OceanEar_VEAquaculture@usace.army.mil before Nov. 19.
Guest Opinion Published in the News-Press Oct. 25, 2020 by David McGrath
Offshore fish farm worse than an oil rig
I don’t have the exact coordinates for the proposed fish farm for which Hawaii based Ocean Era Corp. is seeking a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. But its reported location of “45 miles southwest of Sarasota” puts it smack dab in the middle of the red snapper and grouper grounds of recreational anglers in Southwest Florida and from all over the country.
Permitting this underwater monstrosity would be a tragedy.
A chain link cage, anchored to the sea floor 130 feet below, with 20,000 almaco jack fish packed like cattle, in an oversized bait ball of synthetic feed, waste, and pharmaceuticals, would alter the ecology and pollute and deform Florida’s natural, heretofore, uncorrupted west coast.
That the Corps would contemplate a permit is befuddling, considering what they already know. A study published in Science Direct in December 2019, detailed the chronic accidents imperiling Norway’s offshore fish farm industry, including “mass mortality of fish during and after operations, introgression of genes from farmed salmon, the spread of disease and material damage to assets…”
The conservation group Friends of the Earth echoed the same dangers: “From the release of untreated fish waste and excess nutrients to the overuse of antibiotics and endangerment of marine life, industrial ocean fish farms are nothing but bad news for our oceans.”
Ocean Era itself acknowledged that in their other existing farm off Hawaii, which they saturate with hydrogen peroxide, “leakage” is common and escape risk “high” for the penned fish invariably infected with “skin fluke parasites.” They also admit to hazards for large fish and mammals (dolphins and whales) attracted to the cages that can become trapped inside and die, as happened recently with an endangered tiger shark and a monk seal.
Ocean Era states that aquaculture would make us less dependent on imported seafood. But a better option emerged in a report just last week that more humpback whales are being observed off the coast of New York than ever before, as they feed on massive schools of menhaden that have returned and propagated. Scientists say New York’s bounty of forage is due to cleaner water and stricter conservation laws, which is what Florida’s focus should be for increasing domestic fish stocks, instead of polluting the Gulf with farms to make inorganic “seafood.”
As both a sportsman and a human being, I plead also in behalf of the caged fish. Fishermen respect nature and appreciate the intelligence, complexity, and intrinsic value of the Gulf’s inhabitants. We marvel at the freedom, speed, and magnificence of the nearer dwelling native amberjack, to which the almaco jack is a close cousin which can grow to 80 pounds. It is an offshore pelagic, a silvery torpedo high in the food chain who prowls the open ocean for prey (not pellets) in depths of 800 to 1,000 feet.
But in Ocean Era’s net pens, they are disabled from roaming, confined in a watery cell in a shallow and unaccustomed depth, leading an unnatural, immured existence before being slaughtered and frozen for shipment.
Finally, the allure of offshore sport fishing depends on the pristine character of the Gulf of Mexico. The sea is the last frontier where sportsmen, tourists, and native Floridians reliably encounter wilderness, solitude, and wonder.
Sailing over hills of sparkling blue water, accompanied by platoons of dolphin, frigate birds with 8 foot wingspan soaring overhead, flying fish gliding iridescent in your wake, and curious loggerheads surfacing to investigate, even the least spiritual among us suspect that this is where God, if he or she exists, would reside.
Imagine if you were vacationing in Yellowstone National Park, exhilarating in the mountains, the rivers, and the wildlife, and your path were suddenly blocked by a barbed wire corral imprisoning 20,000 cramped, sedentary bison. In many of the same ways, a 24/7 barge parked over a submerged fenced-in enclosure stabilized with floating, lighted buoys, and boiling with disoriented fish and a festering stew of contaminants, destroys our Gulf wilderness.
In jeopardizing our seascape and its cleanliness, the Ocean Era fish farm may pose an even more serious threat to Florida tourism, the state’s No. 1 industry, than the grotesquely protruding and hugely dangerous oil rigs which the state has been successfully fending off its west coast for decades.
Denying Ocean Era a permit may seem like a no brainer. But in view of the current federal administration’s preference for private industry profits to trump environmental health, and the President’s executive order just last May to remove federal restrictions on aquaculture, I urge readers to make their views known by sending comments to the Army Corp of Engineers using this email address: OceanEra_VEaquaculture@usace.army.mil before Nov. 4th. (NOTE: The comment period has been extended to Nov. 19 due to email issues at the Corps.)
David McGrath is contributing editor of FLORIDA SPORTSMAN MAGAZINE, teaches writing at Florida Southwestern State College, and is author of SOUTH SIDERS. David.McGrath@fsw.edu