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David McGrath: this fish farm will deform the Gulf of Mexico – and anglers need to stand against it


I don’t have the exact coordinates for the proposed fish farm in the Gulf of Mexico for which Hawaii-based Ocean Era Corp. is seeking a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. But its reported location of ‘45 miles southwest of Sarasota’ puts it smack dab in the middle of Florida’s grouper and red snapper fishing grounds, for anglers from Florida and from all over the country.

Permitting this underwater monstrosity would be a tragedy.          

A chain link cage, anchored to the sea floor 130 feet below, with 20,000 almaco jack fish packed like cattle in a soup of synthetic feed, waste and pharmaceuticals, would alter the ecology and pollute and deform the heretofore uncorrupted Eastern Gulf.              

That the Corps would contemplate a permit is befuddling, considering what it already knows. A study published in Science Direct in December 2019 detailed the chronic accidents imperilling Norway’s offshore fish farm industry, including ‘mass mortality of fish during and after operations, introgression of genes [mixing with wild fish] from farmed salmon, the spread of disease and material damage to assets…’      

The conservation group, Friends of the Earth, echoed the same dangers: “From the release of untreated fish waste and excess nutrients to the overuse of antibiotics and endangerment of marine life, industrial ocean fish farms are nothing but bad news for our oceans.”

Ocean Era itself acknowledged that in its other existing farm off Hawaii, which it saturates with thousands of gallons of hydrogen peroxide, ‘leakage’ is common and escape risk  ‘high’ for penned fish invariably infected with ‘skin fluke parasites’.  It also admits to hazards for large fish and mammals (dolphins and whales) attracted to the cages that can become trapped inside and die, as happened recently with an endangered tiger shark and a monk seal.

Ocean Era argues that aquaculture would make the United States less dependent on imported seafood.  But countering its argument was a report just last week that more humpback whales are being observed off the coast of New York than ever before, as they feed on massive schools of menhaden that have finally returned.  

Scientists say New York’s bounty is due to cleaner water and stricter conservation laws, which is what the focus of the Army Corps and the federal government should be for increasing domestic fish stocks, instead of polluting the Gulf with farms to make inorganic ‘seafood’.

As both a sportsman and a human being, I plead also on behalf of the caged fish.  Fishermen respect nature and appreciate the intelligence, complexity and intrinsic value of the Gulf’s inhabitants.

As a fisherman, I know the freedom, speed and magnificence of the native amberjack – to which the almaco jack is a close cousin – which can grow to 80lb. It is an offshore pelagic, a silvery torpedo high in the food chain that prowls the open ocean for prey (not pellets) in depths of 800 to 1,000 feet.             

But in Ocean Era’s net pens, they cannot roam, confined in a watery cell in a shallow and unaccustomed depth, leading an unnatural, immured existence before being slaughtered and frozen for shipment.               

Finally, the pristine character of the Gulf of Mexico must be preserved. The sea is the last frontier where sportsmen, tourists, their grandchildren and, hopefully, great-grandchildren, may encounter wilderness, solitude and wonder.           

Sailing over hills of sparkling blue water, accompanied by platoons of dolphin, frigate birds with eight-foot wingspans soaring overhead, flying fish gliding iridescent in your wake and curious loggerheads surfacing to investigate – even the atheist among us suspects that this is where God, if he or she exists, would reside.

Imagine if you were vacationing in Yellowstone National Park, exhilarating in the mountains, the rivers and the wildlife, and your path were suddenly blocked by a barbed wire corral imprisoning 20,000 cramped, sedentary bison. In the same way, a barge parked 24/7 over a submerged enclosure boiling with disoriented fish amid a festering stew of contaminants would destroy our Gulf wilderness.

In jeopardising our seascape and its cleanliness, the Ocean Era fish farm may pose an even more serious threat to Florida tourism, the state’s number one industry, than the grotesquely protruding and hugely dangerous oil rigs which the state has been successfully fending off its west coast for decades.          

Denying Ocean Era a permit may seem like a no-brainer. But in view of the current federal administration’s preference for private industry profits to trump environmental health, and the President’s executive order just last May to remove federal restrictions on aquaculture, I urge readers to make their views known to the Army Corp of Engineers at OceanEra_VEaquaculture@usace.army.mil

• David McGrath is an outdoors writer from Port Charlotte, Florida, and a contributing editor to Florida Sportsman magazine.

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