Ocean Era is a company that operates a finfish aquaculture farm in Hawaii state waters. It has applied for permits for an aquaculture project, Velella Epsilon, about 45 miles off the coast of Sarasota, Florida in the Gulf of Mexico. The project would grow 20,000 Almaco Jack to about 4.4 lbs, and, with anticipated loss (death of fish), would ultimately equal about 75,000 lbs of fish in one cage. This is about equivalent to the annual amount of these wild fish landed in Florida, for the most recent years for which landing data is available (meaning this is a A LOT of fish). Currently, permits will be for 5 years, though the project is estimated to be about 12-18 months in length.
Two agencies – the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers (USACE) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have been reviewing permits for the facility, one for constructing the facility in navigable waters and the other to release pollution. EPA took public comments on their permit and in response to peoples’ requests, hosted a public hearing back in January 2020. USACE until recently refused to allow public comments on its construction permit.
On September 30th, the Don’t Cage Our Oceans Coalition, of which Recirculating Farms is a founding member, in collaboration with Florida community groups and many others, hosted a virtual “People’s Hearing” to collect comments to send to the USACE. Both the morning and evening sessions were well attending with more than over 140 people signing up to participate. All of of those who spoke, did so against the project, citing concerns with pollution, fish escapes, entanglement hazards and other impacts to endangered and threatened species, economic harm to fishing communities and local businesses, among other issues.
That same day, EPA gave final approval for their National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for the project and made public the process for administrative appeal. This started a 30-day appeal clock.Recirculating Farms, Friends of the Earth and others are now working on an appeal.
Meanwhile, on October 5th the USACE noticed that it would accept public comment for 30 days on its Velella Epsilon permit application, and potentially host a public hearing if enough commenters so request!
Please weigh in on the Velella Epsilon project USACE permit here. Here is a sample comment letter that you are welcome to use or modify. In addition to your comments on the permit, please be sure to ask for at least one public hearing near Sarasota, but also multiple hearings throughout the Gulf of Mexico, since this project is meant to be the first of many throughout the Gulf.