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Groups urge federal government to cancel a permit for proposed fish farm off the Sarasota coast

An undersea fish pen with a scuba diver.
Ocean Era
The facility requires an EPA permit because the water that flows through the net pen will need to be monitored for nutrient levels.

What could become the nation's first deep water aquaculture facility in federal offshore waters was first proposed in 2019 and would be located about 45 miles off Sarasota in the Gulf of Mexico.

When the Environmental Protection Agency first issued Ocean Eraa permit in 2020, the Hawaii based company said it would construct a certain type of pen to cultivate almaco jack, a longfin yellowtail fish.

But in May, the company amended the plan, which includes a change in the design of the fish pen. They also said they would now grow red drum, which is one of the fastest-growing species of fish.

Cris Costello, of the Sierra Club of Florida, says the changes are an almost literal bait and switch.

"Ocean Era has admitted that it will not, and as a practical matter, cannot implement the project as it is currently permitted and yet they want to continue under the same permit. And that's what we can't abide," Costello said.

“So, that's why we have sent a letter to the EPA asking them to deny the permit.”

The Sierra Club and several other groups also have a lawsuit pending that challenges the original permit and various actions by the EPA in regards to Ocean Era.

They say they will stay that litigation for 90 days while the EPA considers their request.

Environmentalists say discharges of waste generated by the fish would degrade water quality and fuel algal blooms that cause red tide.

“We know that nitrogen and phosphorus in our coastal waters are making red tide outbreaks worse,” said Costello.

“Local governments are spending money and time trying to stop nitrogen pollution at its source on the land and the EPA is tasked with deciding whether a new source of pollution; the fish food and the fish waste, is going to be directly introduced into waters that are already at a tipping point.”

What could become the nation's first fish farm in federal waters was initially proposed off the coast of Sarasota County in 2019.

Since then, the Army Corps issued a nationwide permit for construction of finfish aquaculture facilities, following a Trump-era executive order pressing for rapid advancement and expansion of marine aquaculture facilities.

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