ORLANDO, Fla., Sept. 10 (UPI) -- A Hawaiian fish farming company wants to expand into the Gulf of Mexico near Sarasota, Fla., prompting opposition from some fishing associations and environmental groups.
Although it's only proposed as a demonstration project, such a plan pits the company's desire to increase the local seafood supply against commercial fishing interests and some environmental groups, which believe industrial fish farms do more harm than good in the long run.
The proposed project comes as ocean fish-farming has been restricted to existing operations in Denmark and limited to native fish species in Washington state because of problems with pollution and escaping fish.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has green-lighted the Florida project, subject to public comment. The agency's report said minimal short-term impacts associated with the demonstration would not result in substantial harm to local fish habitat.
"Any potentially harmful discharge ... should disperse rapidly," the EPA said in its report on the project, named Velella Epsilon.
The EPA's comment period on the demonstration permit closes Sept. 29.
Kampachi Farms, based on Hawaii's Big Island, wants to build a pen 45 miles offshore and enclose 20,000 Almaco jack fish, which are similar to amberjack, a popular fish for eating and sport fishing. The company said the meat is high in healthy fat with a rich, slightly nutty flavor and firm texture, and could be used for sushi or cooked.
Under the proposal , the fish would be hatched from eggs in tanks on shore and transferred to the open ocean pen as fingerlings.
Kampachi said farms that are far offshore, in strong currents, don't create pollution problems like fish farms in shallow waters closer to shore.
The company's co-founder and chief executive officer, Neil Anthony Sims, said he believes Florida and the United States need a better source of fish. A much larger fish farm in offshore waters near Hawaii that Sims helped to develop has been in production since 2005 and reports an annual harvest of 500 tons per year of Almaco jack.
"America needs to begin accepting responsibility for producing our own seafood," Sims said. "It's an economic problem and a moral problem. We are essentially eating other people's lunch, and they won't let us do that much longer as nations like China and India get wealthier."
Several non-profit groups associated with commercial fishing industries said in a joint press release sent to the media that authorizing a permit would set a "dangerous precedent that could expand harmful fish farming practices across the country."
Their fear is that the farming operation eventually would use harmful chemicals or otherwise pollute the Gulf with fish waste. Penned fish populations also are subject to disease outbreaks that can spread to wild populations, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. An example is infectious salmon anemia, a viral disease that the USDA says causes severe anemia in farmed Atlantic salmon.
Moreover, allowing a private company to enclose part of the federal waters is unethical, contends Rosanna Marie Neil, attorney with the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, a fishermen-led non-profit that focuses on preventing privatization of marine ecosystems.
"They claim they want to showcase how wonderful offshore aquaculture is, but we already know what offshore aquaculture does," Neil said. "I don't see the justification for allowing them to use federal waters for a demonstration project. The ocean is a public resource, so giving them access like this, allowing them to create enclosures in the ocean, it's a handout."
Other groups that oppose Kampachi's project include the Louisiana Shrimp Association, Friends of the Earth and the Recirculating Farms Coalition.
Other environmental groups, including the World Wildlife Federation, have endorsed sustainable fish farming as a possible way to add healthy protein to global diets, if done properly.
Company CEO Sims contends that fears of pollution are overblown. He said his successful farm near Hawaii is close to a reef that's popular with divers. He said game fishermen have found other types of fish congregating near the farm.
"People would be kicking and screaming if we were causing problems. If its far enough offshore, with reasonable current, there's no measurable impact," he said.
The fish pens are completely automated, so they can be managed remotely except for weekly food and fuel runs. They are also submersible so they can be lowered into deeper waters during storms, Sims said.
Kampachi says the fish are fed a sustainable diet and raised in some of the cleanest water on earth in Hawaii so that they have no detectable toxic elements like mercury or PCBs.
The United States ranks 16th in worldwide production from fish farming, according to the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service.
Worldwide, about half of the world's consumption of seafood comes from fish farming, according to the latest statistics from the United Nations. The top five producing countries are in Asia: China, with 61.5 percent of the global total; India, 7.1 percent; Indonesia, 6.2 percent; Vietnam, 4.5 percent; and Bangladesh, 2.7 percent.