SARASOTA COUNTY (WFLA) – The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has officially approved a permit allowing for an offshore aquaculture experiment off the coast of Sarasota County. It’s a first-of-its-kind project in the Gulf of Mexico.

The company behind the experiment, Hawaii-based Ocean Era, is still waiting on one more permit from the Army Corps of Engineers which it expects to receive in 60 days or less. Following the final permit, CEO Neil Anthony Sims expects to see fish in the water around six months after that.

“There’s going to be about 4 to 6 months of just logistics of getting the boat and the pen and the fingerlings and the feed and just getting all of those elements together. We would hope that within around six months, we will be able to deploy the pen and then there will be a 12 month grow out cycle when we will be growing the fish up from the juvenile size up to about four pounds and then, there will be the harvest,” explained Sims.

Sims believes following the demonstration project, Florida and the Gulf of Mexico will see potential for the expansion of aquaculture to supplement the nation’s seafood needs.

“A large proportion of the seafood that Americans eat, over 90% of the seafood that Americans eat, is imported. A lot of that is farmed, and we have no control over the environmental standards or the food safety standards, or the labor and social standards of those operations,” said Sims. “By being able to farm that fish here in US waters, it is local production and everybody loves local food and production, but also, it gives us an opportunity to be able to do this in a way that we can have rigorous environmental and food safety standards and that will be giving the American consumers some real confidence in their seafoods.”

The aquaculture demonstration has caused controversy in the Sarasota region since residents and environmental groups started learning about the possibility a few years back.

Suncoast Waterkeeper’s Executive Director Abbey Tyrna told 8 On Your Side the group is disappointed in the EPA permitting the project “without evidence there will be no environmental harm.”

“Our biggest concern is the lack of required monitoring. Without any environmental monitoring, it’s gonna be hard to say whether or not this pilot project was anything more but an economic feasible project. At what environmental cost is what we are worried about,” said Tyrna. “No doubt, we support aquaculture. That is not the issue. The issue is putting the safeguards on those permits so that we are doing aquaculture in an environmentally sustainable and an environmentally responsible way.”

Ocean Era’s CEO hopes the demonstration will help show the Florida fishing and boating community that offshore aquaculture is “just more fish in the water” and something they’ll “learn to love.”

“We will be working very closely with Mote Marine Lab and the University of Miami’s School of Marine Atmospheric Science. We will be having them do the water quality monitoring on the seafloor underneath the net pen, so there will be extensive monitoring of that and we will make that information publicly available,” said Sims.

At this point, it’s unknown what type of action will be taken by Suncoast Waterkeeper and its coalition partners. Tyrna said that’s being discussed this week.