SARASOTA COUNTY (WFLA) – A Hawaii-based company called Ocean Era has been working to bring offshore aquaculture to the Gulf of Mexico for some time now. The company is only one permit away from moving forward on a demonstration around 40 miles off the coast of Sarasota.

The company’s founder and CEO Neil Anthony Sims explains the vast majority of America’s seafood comes from other countries, around 90%. He says that half of the fish comes from fish farms.

His company Ocean Era aims at growing that seafood in local waters. This project would involve around 20,000 Almaco Jack, which are native to the Gulf of Mexico. Over 12 months, they would grow to around four pounds each.

“We should be growing that seafood locally, providing the jobs for Americans, and then having our own rigorous environmental standards and food safety standards over that seafood. That is going to allow Americans to feel comfortable about eating more seafood,” said Sims.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued the company a permit this week.

“We are pleased to finally receive this NPDES permit for our demonstration net pen trial, after working towards this for more than three years. This is the culmination of a comprehensive environmental review process – as evidenced by the 439 page Environmental Assessment, and the 59 pages of EPA’s responses to comments received from the public. The fact sheet even runs to 14 pages. The overarching finding is that there will be no significant impact from his one small cohort of fish, in one small pen,” said Sims.

Now, all Ocean Era needs is permitting from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; it is something some locals are hoping doesn’t happen.

The idea of offshore fish farming has become a controversial topic. Environmentalists and several local residents in Sarasota including Mayor Jen Ahearn Koch don’t like the idea of experimenting in the gulf. A big concern is pollution from excess excretions from the fish and overall water quality impacts.

“We already have serious red tide and blue green algae blooms on a regular basis in Florida and across the gulf and this facility would only add more of the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that is a major factor in those incidents,” said Raleigh Hoke with Healthy Gulf. Another concern is this experiment paving the way for other companies. “It is not just about this one facility. This is going to be a proverbial camels nose into the tent. There’s already another facility that has been considered off the coast of Pensacola. (This) could set a precedent for more facilities across the entire Florida gulf coast and across the entire Gulf of Mexico and it is incredibly important that we are involved with this process of making sure that these companies are not allowed to experiment on the Gulf of Mexico,” he continued.

The Don’t Cage Our Ocean Coalition hosted a virtual public hearing Wednesday for people to share their input on the offshore aquaculture project. The EPA held a public forum earlier this year before making its permitting decision, but the Army Corps of Engineers did not.

The coalition recorded all testimony and plans on sending it directly to the Army Corps of Engineers so their voices can be heard.

“There is major interest in this project and there’s major opposition to this project and the Army Corps should be giving people the opportunity to comment on this, to be involved in the process of permitting. We don’t think it is appropriate for the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to be permitting these facilities when they really don’t know what the long-term impact of any of these facilities will be on the Gulf of Mexico,” said Hoke.

Courtesy: Leslie Harris-Senac

Sarasota-based beach wedding photographer and videographer Leslie Harris-Senac particpated in the hearing earlier this year as well as the virtual hearing this week. Her business is devastated every time red tide plagues local waters; she fears the aquaculture project will feed algae blooms.

“It is a big concern because if they allow these fish farms, it could potentially open up our Gulf of Mexico to all kinds of industrialized farming and that would be really bad for the environment because it pollutes. We’ve got something really special here on the gulf coast of Florida with the manatees and the dolphins and we want to keep that so we need to do everything we can to help protect our way of life here in Florida,” said Harris-Senac.

8 On Your Side brought some of these concerns directly to Sims.

“I have major environmental concerns myself about the entire planet and about our oceans. I am a marine biologist and this is, to my understanding, the best thing that we can be doing for planetary health and for our oceans health and for consumer health is to be growing more of the seafood that we need,” said Sims. “The concerns that people have about the effluent from fish pens, we have already taken out about 90% of the big fish out of the ocean so that they used to be a lot more fish, 10 times more fish in the ocean in the wild and they were all pooping and excreting before, we will just be putting those fish back into the ocean and starting to figure out how to grow them,” he continued.

Sims says science and evidence thus far shows no significant impacts of offshore aquaculture on the water quality.

“All of the evidence and all of the science that has been conducted around offshore fish pens has shown that as long as the pen is located properly and is reasonably well-managed, it needs to be in deep water further offshore, that there is no significant impact on the water quality or on the sand that is underneath the fish pens,” said Sims.

He also stressed that the demonstration is not for an industrial fish farm, but instead for one single pen.

“This is just for one net pen of 20,000 fish. It is not an industrial fish farm. If you do this at a commercial scale, you would be doing perhaps 10 pens, each of 200,000 fish. This is only about 1% of the size of a commercial sized farm. We do intend to use this demonstration project to show to the gulf fishing and boating community that offshore aquaculture is actually something that I think they are going to learn to love in the same way that the community in Hawaii has learned to love the offshore fish pens that we have deployed here because they had become great fish aggregating devices,” said Sims.

Sims say he understands the concern and resistance coming from locals, but is hopeful their perspectives will change with time.