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Gulf Fish Farm Gets Federal Approval To Dump Thousands Of Pounds Of Waste

 Many fish swimming toward the camera in blue-green water.

Officials in Sarasota and Holmes Beach have been voicing opposition to Ocean Era's proposed Almaco jack fish farm for months.

The Environmental Protection Agency has authorized a requestto discharge thousands of pounds of fish farm waste into the Gulf of Mexico. It's a key step to open a controversial pilot project 45 miles off Sarasota's coast.

Ocean Era Inc., formerly known as Kampachi Farms, plans for the floating fish farm to raise 20,000 Almaco jack.

The farm, named Velella Epsilon Aquatic Animal Production Facility, is the first ever authorized in federal waters, but city officials in Sarasota and Holmes Beach have been voicing opposition to this project for months.

Jaclyn Lopez with the Center for Biological Diversitysaid there's still a lot of data missing because this is a trial run.

“It's based on modeling, it's based on estimates,” she said. “The intention, I believe, is to collect data about how the operation will impact water quality by keeping track of the ammonia that leaves the facility or other solid waste that might leave the, they call it a facility, but it's just a big open net in the water."

The Center estimates the permit to discharge up to 80,000 pounds of waste could amount to 36 pounds of ammonia nitrogen and 309 pounds of solid waste per day. Waste includes feces and fish feed.

Activists are worried about farmed fish spreading diseases and nutrients from the fish waste exacerbating red tide algae blooms, said Lopez. They're also concerned about storms.

"This summer alone, we saw two named storms in the Gulf of Mexico- that hasn't happened in decades. It's possible, and scientists predict likely, that we're going to continue to see big storms come through the Gulf,” she said. “The ability to maintain the integrity of this this facility remains to be seen.”

There’s another thing environmentalists are wary of: endangered animals.

Lopez said wildlife will be attracted to the fish farms because it's a concentrated area where fish feed is going in, and fish waste is coming out.

“We have five different species of sea turtles that are protected under the Endangered Species Act, but are also just off of our coasts,” she said. “We have six different species of whale, we have manta rays, small tooth sawfish, as well as just other fish and other marine wildlife that are in the area that can become attracted to this space and can potentially become entangled with it, or otherwise made more vulnerable to other risks, like getting hit by boats.”

The applicant, Ocean Era Inc., is also is seeking another permit needed to operate the fish farm from the Army Corps of Engineers, she said. Lopez expects this latest move to be challenged in court.

My main role for WUSF is to report on climate change and the environment, while taking part in NPR’s High-Impact Climate Change Team. I’m also a participant of the Florida Climate Change Reporting Network.