fish farm

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Offshore aquaculture is coming to Southwest Florida — and it might help you catch more fish.

Southwest Florida’s offshore anglers might soon have another fishing hotspot to load into their GPS units. About a month ago, the EPA announced plans to issue a permit for the first-ever aquaculture facility in federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Called Velella Epsilon, it’s planned for a site approximately 45 miles southwest of Sarasota. Hawaii-based mariculture company Kampachi Farms LLC has been working on this project for years. The EPA’s recent announcement means that a major hurdle on the path to bringing the project together has been cleared.

The operation that’s being permitted is not a huge production facility. It’s a demonstration-level project which will consist of a single moored floating net pen about 55 feet in diameter. The pen is completely enclosed, and is designed so that it can be submerged in the event of stormy weather. When submerged, it would hang in the water column a short distance above the bottom, then it would be floated back to the surface when the weather cleared.

The plan is to place 20,000 juvenile almaco jacks in the pen, feed them for a year, then harvest them at a target weight of about 4.5 pounds per fish.

Aquaculture projects in the U.S. have long been controversial. There are concerns about the potential for farmed fish to escape into the wild and alter the genetics of native fish. Other concerns include the potential for the introduction of disease into native fish stocks and the impact of producing a large amount of fish waste in a small area.

The commercial fishing industry in the U.S. has been very vocal about opposing saltwater aquaculture operations, which the commercials regard as direct competition.

But the reality is that most of the seafood eaten in the U.S. is imported, even in coastal states like Florida. There are restaurants in our area, including some very good ones, which serve only local-caught seafood — but most of the grouper or shrimp and many other seafoods eaten in Florida comes from overseas. It’s probably worth noting that many countries not only allow but also encourage such operations in their waters, and a lot of the fish raised is exported to the U.S.

There is no guarantee that something can’t go wrong with the new fish farm, and it seems like Mother Nature does have a way of messing up man’s plans for things in the oceans. But the EPA has evaluated the proposed facility and is satisfied that it is viable, noting among other things that the amount of fish waste which will be produced will be indistinguishable from background levels.

In other words, there are plenty of fish pooping in the ocean already and a few more probably won’t change things noticeably. You can look at the EPA’s thoughts on the project at http://bit.ly/2nc90Yp.

The location of the proposed project is in about 130 feet of water at approximately 27.07.24N, 83.12.03W — about 33 miles northwest of the Bayronto wreck. That’s a pretty long way out, but it’s certainly in range of many offshore boats.

Kampachi Farms installed a somewhat similar project off the coast of Kona, Hawaii. That project, according to Kampachi Farms, quickly became popular with local fishermen because it acted like a big fish attractor. That device also became a popular destination for snorkelers due to its position fairly close to the coast.

You might expect that Kampachi would want to keep fishermen away from their equipment, but actually just the opposite is true. They want the project to generate as much benefit to the local community as possible. That includes benefit to local anglers who may catch wild fish around the structure, so they encourage anglers to fish there.

As Velella Epsilon nears reality, it is sure to raise heated discussions. Recreational fishermen, commercial fishermen, coastal residents, government officials and environmentalists will all have different opinions, and all should be heard.

But if it does come to fruition, then I’d bet that it’s not long before Southwest Florida anglers are catching dolphin, cobia, sharks and other pelagic fish at the site.

Let’s go fishing!

Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.

Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.

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