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Almaco jacks swim in an aquaculture pen.

One of the most basic truths of life is that you can never make everyone happy. No matter what you do, there is bound to be someone who finds fault with it. Such is the case with a proposed small-scale offshore fish farm in the Gulf of Mexico.

The plan by Hawaii-based Kampachi Farms to raise 20,000 almaco jacks (a mid-sized species of amberjack) was mentioned a few months back right here in WaterLine by Capt. Ralph Allen (http://bit.ly/37zAmcs). Capt. Ralph’s view of the project was generally favorable.

Not so a November guest editorial by Marianne Cufone in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. That piece called the proposal an “industrial threat” and warned that it could have numerous negative consequences, stating that “these facilities can destroy both ecosystems and local economies.” Still, I suggest you read it, because it’s always a good thing to understand others’ viewpoints. I can’t give you a link (competing newspaper, ya know), but an online search should turn it right up.

There will be a public hearing regarding the project at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 28 at Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium in the WAVE Center (1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota). If you would like to attend, you can pre-register online at http://bit.ly/35m8ya8. But before you go, it’s better to have the facts than hyperbole.

Invasive species

No matter how good your containment system is, there is the potential for fish to escape from it. This is something that we in Florida know only too well, as many of the non-native fish swimming in our fresh waters are there as a result of their ancestors escaping from tropical fish farms, where they are raised for the aquarium trade.

But the fish they’re planning to raise are a native species. Almaco jacks belong in the Gulf of Mexico — so even if they all escaped, no big deal from an environmental standpoint. A small-scale fish farm would become a small-scale restocking project.

Actually, this is a great example of why local offshore fish farms are a good idea. Raising fish in areas where they aren’t native is not a good plan. Growing them where they occur naturally makes way more sense.

Raising fish on land

Ms. Cufone’s column suggested that raising saltwater fish in land-based facilities — basically, big aquariums — would be a better alternative. I admit I haven’t done a full cost analysis of that idea, but I will point two things out: First, in a closed system, stocking levels (pounds of fish per gallon of water) will have to come way, way down compared to open systems. That means larger ponds, buying more land, lots of extra maintenance, etc.

Second, Mote Marine does this already, in a limited way. Their breeding and growout tanks are located in inland Sarasota County, and the salt they use comes from commercial seawater mixes. They have found this to be more economical and safer than tapping natural sources. But ask anyone with a saltwater aquarium how much seawater mix costs. I found 200 gallons worth of Instant Ocean (which weighs 60 pounds) on Amazon for $42.

Those costs, which may not be prohibitive for an experimental facility or one raising high-dollar aquarium fish, are going to make it very difficult or impossible to bring food fish to market at a competitive price — especially when fish farms overseas are supported by their governments, which are hungry for exports and the dollars they bring.

Nutrient pollution

Fish farms can be very messy. Although there isn’t much food wasted, since the fish are very competitive for every morsel, fish do poop. A lot. And when you pack a bunch of them together in a pen, the impact can be significant in that local area. A fish farm in Charlotte Harbor would be a bad idea for that reason.

But we’re not talking about Charlotte Harbor. We’re talking about the open Gulf of Mexico, 45 miles away from shore and in 130 feet of water. The pen will be 56 feet in diameter and 23 feet tall — about 57,000 cubic feet, or 425,000 gallons. Compare this to the 660 quadrillion gallons of water in the Gulf. It’s 0.00000000000064 percent. The equivalent would be about a third of a gallon in Charlotte Harbor.

Now, of course this eensy-weensy farm is a pilot project, meant to be followed by larger scale versions. But even a farm ten thousand times bigger would still be the equivalent of maybe 3,500 gallons in Charlotte Harbor.

Maybe fish farming pollutes on a level larger than the pen size. The plan is to raise 88,000 pounds of fish. Let’s scale that up ten thousand times, to 880 million pounds. That would be more than enough to completely replace all commercial landings in the Gulf of Mexico (except menhaden).

Yellowtail (not the snapper) are a species of amberjack farmed in Japan. According to SeafoodWatch.org, aquacultured yellowtail results in 152.4 kilograms of waste nitrogen discharged per 1,000 kg of production. The math shows our 880 million pounds of farmed fish would lead to about 67,000 tons of nitrogen released into the water.

Sounds huge. But by comparison, we currently discharge 110,000 tons of nitrogen into the Chesapeake Bay every year in the form of treated sewage — an amount hailed as an environmental victory because it’s down from a peak of 150,000 tons.

Spreading less than half that amount around the Gulf, so no one area is disproportionately impacted, means the potential for pollution problems gets very diluted. U.S. Gulf waters comprise 273,295 square miles. If we spread our fish farms out, our 880 million pounds of fish production leads to less than 500 pounds of nitrogen added for each square mile — a tiny additional 0.003 percent of the amount that naturally occurs.

Economics

One of the benefits of farmed fish is less reliance on wild stocks. Not every species is going to be suitable for aquaculture, and those that aren’t will continue to be wild-caught. But think about how much simpler management could be for those fish that can be farmed.

We already know red snapper do pretty well in farm conditions. So do cobia, pompano, redfish, and at least one species of grouper (http://bit.ly/37KfcZx). Producing these fish in commercial numbers would take a lot of pressure off their wild counterparts.

About two-thirds of the seafood Americans eat is currently produced somewhere besides the U.S. (You’ll see 90 percent widely reported, but that figure includes seafood caught here but sent to other countries for processing.) That means not only that we’re sending our food dollars overseas, but also that we’re eating a lot of seafood that’s caught unsustainably, raised in coastal waters where environmental problems are likely, or farmed using questionable practices that may be illegal in this country.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We can raise our own safe seafood in the U.S. — local species that there is already well-established demand for and that won’t cause problems if they escape captivity, overseen by the USDA and with methods approved for American consumption, in areas where nutrient pollution won’t become a problem. All we have to do is get replace unsubstantiated fears with facts and then get out of our own way.

Contact Capt. Josh Olive at 941-276-9657 or Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com.

Contact Capt. Josh Olive at 941-276-9657 or Publisher@
WaterLineWeekly.com.

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